Praying After Pittsburgh

I am a Rabbi who is privileged to serve an intentional community which takes the form of an independent congregation. We are the only Jewish congregation on the east side of Portland Oregon. We are not only independent but young – only 15 years old – and thus tend to carefully think through our every act. While some might say we often indulge in over-thinking our issues, it seems to me that it’s hard to spend too much time musing, sharing our thoughts and commiserating regarding the growing sense of fear we share as Jewish U.S. citizens.

 

Our congregation’s median age is about 40, and many of our members are young parents. Like many welcoming and progressive congregations, we count many LGBTQI+ identified Jews, some Jews of Color, and a fair number of committed non-Jews – I like to call them “fellow travelers” – among our congregational family. Many of our members have had to fight to feel equally included in the Jewish peoplehood of U.S. society. It is a harsh irony that those who have struggled to be counted in our Jewish minyan of prayer, study and mutual support now feel unsafe in that identity. They now feel comfortable in a place of prayer – and now they are targets. Life is funny that way.

 

By far the most heartbreaking conversation I have had as Rabbi or as a Jew about the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at prayer was the one I had recently at a gathering of the parents of our youngest children.

 

“As an adult, I feel I know what to do. I’m okay. I can understand what happened, in terms of Jewish history, and anti-Semitism, and the social chaos of this moment,” said one mother. “But as a parent, I’m lost.” Another added through tears, “I just don’t know what I have to do to keep my children safe.”

 

This is the long-dawning, terrible truth of our age: there is no safety. Certainly, we all know this theoretically; that at any moment, an accident could happen or an illness strike, G*d forbid. But this is different, because the evil from which we would shield our children is deliberate. When I’m at the gym, I’ve been thinking this week about the character of the mother in the old movie “The Terminator.” The magical thinking in which a parent might wish to indulge is exacerbated by such Hollywood movies, in which a mother of a threatened child goes about becoming strong enough to shield him – and coincidentally save the world. In the real world, mothers and children are, regularly, swept away together.

 

Waking up is difficult for us. We Jews don’t have the psychic muscles for this – we who have been able to take refuge in white privilege, and succeeded in integrating ourselves into mainstream, affluent U.S. society. We can’t cope with the level of stress our persecuted ancestors took for granted in their lives. Many of my people were already complaining of unbearable levels of stress and no sense of how to deal with it.

 

We are only now beginning to be able to understand the concrete reality of what it means to live in a world in which our children are not safe, just as mothers of black and brown babies and LGBTQI+ mothers and indigenous mothers – and fathers – have known for a long, weary, soul-destroying time. What we need to learn from them is this: There is no safe space for any of us right now. Safety cannot be carved out of the terror of our days. New Zealand has closed its doors and Canada looks at us askance; we can’t buy a pied-a-terre in some other saner place. There is no way to hold ourselves apart from the coming cataclysm, and be safe while all others suffer around us. As Anne Frank presciently wrote, I can hear the approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.

 

I don’t use my phone on Shabbat. On that morning, the news about the massacre at the Tree of Life congregation was shared with me five minutes before I was to begin to lead my own congregation in prayer. We were calling a young girl up to the Torah for the first time, as a bat mitzvah. I determined not to announce what had happened, lest her family’s joy be overshadowed by the horror just outside the door. We who knew sang with more fervor than usual, I think, and more joy – joy is also a form of defiance. And I thought to myself, there are worse ways to go than leading prayer, in the midst of something meaningful on which I’ve built my life. Better, even, perhaps, than the random accident or illness, in some way.

 

We opened our doors the next evening to welcome about two hundred people who sought solace with us in vigil. We lit candles and we hugged each other, and the we went back out into the uncertainty of our lives. What my people and I are realizing is that in the end, our lives are not made meaningful by living them in safety but with intention. It’s an old High Holy Days trope but now with renewed intensity: who by fire? who by water? the old prayer doesn’t ask whether or not we are going to die, but only that we consider how.

 

My people and I stand at a place where two paths diverge. Many of us will opt for the more guarded, more armed, and more anxious effort to keep ourselves safe. But in the end, it’s not really about safety. It’s all about what you are doing when death finds you. I will do my best to help my people find the way to lead with integrity, not with fear, for however many days we have. In this way, I believe, the memory of each of us can be a blessing.

 

As I say to my people: hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other, and we will be all right, no matter what comes.

 

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What Good Does This Safety Pin Do?

It started last week, immediately on the heels of the election, or maybe even a bit before: people starting to wear safety pins, as a sign to others that the wearers are those who will guard your safety with them. I hear that it’s an idea adopted from a reaction to Brexit.

In the best Jewish tradition, we can immediately see a special Jewish resonance in this gesture. My first thought was “something we can finally do with those six million safety pins we gathered a few years ago”.

Do you remember that project? Grade school age children set about collecting six million safety pins as a way of trying to envision the enormity of Jewish death in the Holocaust. It’s an unthinkably vast number of deaths, and it’s an incredible number of safety pins. What do we do with them once they’re collected, viewed, and considered?

Now we know.

It has already been suggested that Jews have an opportunity now to “pay it forward” for the kindnesses done for us during World War II. I suggest that the safety pin you might choose to wear is a potent reminder to you that as you reach out in acts that insist upon the safety of those targeted by the incoming U.S. administration, you are lifting up the life of the person – one of the six million – whose soul is carried in that safety pin.

No life is ever wasted, even when it is cut short. Those who died of inhuman cruelty in the Shoah never could know that a day would come when their lives would be carried on in an action as simple and as profound as when you and I choose to wear, and act in the spirit of, a safety pin.

All life is precious for its potential; and life fulfills its potential in supporting and celebrating all life. No life should be cut short of its potential; no life should be lived in fear; all life must be nurtured to rise toward the sun, out of the darkness. If wearing a safety pin will help you remember to reach out and live this truth despite your fear, then it is not at all an empty gesture. It is a yizkor, a way of demanding that we, and G*d, remember those whose lives were cut short in that earlier wave of darkness, and it is an assertion that we will not stand by now, fearing for our own safety, while anything like it ever happens again.

Never Again starts now.

Be aware of what you are saying if you put that safety pin on. Realize that it has a meaning that you cannot edit. Know that it declares that no one is safe unless we are all safe, and that you put yourself at risk. Learn how to effectively intervene in a way that does not make it all worse. You could get killed or injured. This is for real: life and death.

During the time of great racist hatred and fear that led to the Holocaust, the great Martin Niemoller wrote of his own awakening.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

It is our time to speak up. Let the safety pin remind you of the life you lift up through your own words and your acts, that such words and acts are necessary and they are sacred mitzvot. Be kind, be active, be awake.

Shabbat VaYeshev: Do You Believe In Your Life?

Do you believe in your life? Enough to lose it?

The media reports that people are frightened. More and more, the ordinary activities of daily life seem to be places in which a mass shooting might occur. “When I drop off my child at school,” “when I go to the mall,” “when I am at work,” “when I go into a cafe to grab a coffee, I realize, it could happen there.”

An article describing the rising fear Americans feel about random gun violence goes on to consider ways we might cope with this anticipatory, more and more general fear.

“I think awareness of your own fears is the only way to go and to do the things that are soothing and comforting and distracting to do, and to do things that bring meaning to your life and bring comfort to other people,” said Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s what your grandmother said: Keep busy.” (“Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders”)

Our Jewish ethical tradition holds that we can do better than that. We cannot just “stay busy” if our lives do not have value to us; busy nonsense does not calm the storm of existential terror. And we cannot simply stay in bed and pull the covers up over our heads.

We Americans are beginning to experience what other peoples in our world have already learned: there is no guaranteed safety. On any day, life may end for any one of us. We are accustomed to as, as an idle conversation starter, “what would you want to do if it were your last day?” But we do not live our lives that way, because it’s not possible. 

There is a different question we should be asking ourselves. In a world in which my choices might end with my death, do I believe in my choices enough to stake my life on them?

In Israel during the second intifada of 2001-2003, I witnessed the way people behave who are used to random violence in their everyday lives. Average Israelis, many of them opposed to the policies of their government that had caused the uprising, and had no necessary connection to politics, were aware that their daily choices were existential choices. Israeli social culture has evolved, over more time than just the last decades, a common awareness that life, itself, is not a supreme value, but a relative value, to be used to demonstrate one’s convictions about how life should be lived. Israelis do not stay home and cower; they live with a heightened awareness that where they live, how they live, will cost them their lives.

In America in these dark days, we are surrounded by random violence by the armed and angry, and heinous cowardice on the part of our elected officials. The choice to live as we wish and be safe is not now, if it ever was, available. Many of us average Americans have had no direct part in what makes the gun wielders angry, but we may be killed. 

Your life as you live it, with its commitments, expectations and desires, is going to require you to walk into a world of random violence today. Do you believe in what you are doing today, this and every day, enough to say “I may be cut down before I can finish, but I am building a meaningful life day by day”.

In our parashat hashavua for this week, people suffer and sometimes die, sometimes because of choices they have made and sometimes as a result of another’s whim. May our lot be with those who are privileged to be aware that our lives are made valuable by our conscious choices, and may we believe in our lives.