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Disarming Hatred: A Response to the Tragedy in Pittsburgh

10/29/2018 08:26:34 PM


Cantor Lauren Phillips Fogelman

When I was a teenager, I visited Europe with my family. Among the sites we toured were several synagogues, including the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. At the time, the congregation had experienced both a mass shooting and a bombing. In 1986, gunmen opened fire during a Shabbat service, resulting in the death of 22 individuals. In 1992, a bomb exploded at the synagogue. Fortunately, that there were no casualties that time. Several years later, in 2003, Neve Shalom was subsequently the victim of yet another bomb attack. In spite of heightened security measures, the smell of baseless hatred and fear still lingered.

I remember walking around the synagogue as if it were a museum. Bullet holes still remained in many of the wooden pews, preserved behind Plexiglas. Rather than painting over them and repairing the cracks, the marks remained as a permanent reminder of Jewish persecution and resilience. Over a century ago, my own great-grandparents left Turkey for a better life in America. Exploring the synagogue in Istanbul gave me a deeper appreciation of their struggles. 

Later, on the same trip, we attempted to go to Shabbat services at Rome’s Great Synagogue. We had our passports with us for identification purposes, but had not preregistered with security. We were questioned by guards for about twenty minutes and ultimately missed a large portion of the service before they finally let us in.

In my naïve teenage mindset, I never imagined that an attack could happen against the Jewish community here in the United States or that we would need such drastic security measures. I grew up in a large suburban community outside of New York City and attended a public high school where Jews occupied a significant percentage of the population. It was a community much like Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood that was hit hard this week when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue during Shabbat morning worship. Growing up, I had not experienced any overt acts of anti-Semitism. In Rome, I remember thinking how we were lucky enough to live in a place where we did not need to implement such tight security at our synagogues – where we didn’t have to plan in advance before visiting a congregation for a worship service. Or so we thought.

Soon after my family’s trip to Europe, 9/11 happened and everything began to change. Suddenly, almost overnight, the desire for security overpowered our basic freedoms, and we as a nation began to implement many more security measures that made life resemble my experiences in Europe just a little more. Now, we take our shoes off before going through airport security and we limit the liquids we bring with us in our carryon luggage. Border security and visa entry requirements became stricter. More troubling, as a nation, our fear of the stranger increased. Minority groups in the United States were no longer as safe as they once had been.

Over the past few years, the situation seems to have gotten even worse for minorities. Many minorities were put on edge after the events in Charlottesville last summer. For us Jews, it was frightening to see fellow American citizens marching with tiki torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

And sadly, this week took an even graver turn for the worse. In Squirrel Hill, we lost the lives of eleven Jews, who were murdered senselessly simply for being Jewish. This was yet another of the mass shootings that we have seen over the past two decades, even before 9/11. Columbine. Newtown. Orlando. Charleston. Las Vegas. The list goes on and on. My heart broke when I heard the news about each and every one of these massacres. But because of my strong sense of Jewish identity, I took this particular attack more personally. It hit way too close too home.

Almost two decades after my family’s trip to Europe, I am now both a Jewish professional and a mother. I think back to my visit to the synagogue in Istanbul, which felt like a museum. I think about the guards questioning my family outside of the synagogue in Rome. I fear that American Judaism is heading down this path. I want my son to grow up in an active Jewish community; for him to learn and grow by doing rather than by watching our traditions from behind glass. And I want the community I serve to be as open as Abraham’s tent, which we read about in last week’s Torah portion. Abraham was able to welcome visitors without hesitation, showing tremendous hospitality and kindness. I fear that this value will be lost if we respond to this tragedy with heightened security and armed guards in our houses of worship. We should not have to close the tent. We should not have to put up barriers.

Instead, we should open our hearts and minds even more as we work towards building a more welcoming – yet vigilant – society. We need to seek out those who are different from us and to educate each other about what unites us and what divides us. As the song from the musical South Pacific goes, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid.” If hatred can be learned, so can tolerance.

But for now, we mourn. In the Jewish tradition, we bury our loved ones as quickly as possible so that we can begin the process of healing. We may never be whole again, but we begin to move forward. At the end of the first week of mourning, Jewish tradition also teaches that we take a walk around the block – baby steps to help us emerge slowly but surely into a new normal. And that’s exactly what we should do. Take this week to refocus and regroup so that next week we can get up and be the change – and, as it would be, vote for a better future for ourselves and our children.

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782