By Daniel Alder, Rabbi of the Brotherhood Synagogue
This week I visited with the older children in our religious school to speak with them about the horrific massacre of praying Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat. They had previously been taught about anti-Semitism in Jewish history and recent anti-Jewish attacks in Israel and in Europe. Now, for the first time, they had to assimilate the very real, virulent form of anti-Semitism here in the United States.
One of the scariest things about today’s rise in anti-Semitism is that it is coming both from the far right and the radical left. From the right, white supremacists and neo-Nazis don’t just consider Jews an enemy, alongside immigrants and people of color, but the ultimate enemy. And from the extreme left, Jews are vilified for their prominence and support of Israel. Anti-Semitism appeals to defiant bigots and proud justice-seeking universalists alike.
The Anti-Defamation League reported a near 60 percent increase increase in harassment, vandalism and assault of Jews and Jewish institutions in 2017. The largest single year increase on record. Synagogues here in our neighborhood need to hire security guards to protect their buildings and congregants on Shabbat and during the week.
Two weeks ago, the Brotherhood Synagogue joined with East End Temple for HIAS National Refugee Shabbat. HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – known for its resettlement work in the United States is one of the oldest refugee protection agencies in the country. It was cited by the Pittsburgh murderer in his online rants.
We wanted to raise our voices as a Jewish community to say that we will not stand idly by as our country abandons its long legacy of welcome and that this flies in the face of our Jewish obligation to welcome, love and protect the stranger.
Last week on Shabbat we hosted Dr. Sheldon Teperman as our speaker on Friday evening speaker. Dr. Teperman is Chief Trauma Surgeon at Jacobi Medical Center and Board member of New Yorkers against Gun Violence. He spoke of our obligations as Jews and citizens to end the plague of gun deaths in our country by fighting for gun control measures.
And then, last Saturday morning as we were finishing our Shabbat prayers, one of our sextons informed us of the massacre in Pittsburgh. Two NYPD officers were immediately assigned by the 13th Precinct to augment our own security. But we all left with a feeling of emotional insecurity.
This Shabbat we will gather as we always do and greet each other words with the traditional phrase, “Shabbat Shalom.” On Friday evening, in addition to our usual prayers we will offer special reflections, prayers and song in remembrance of the victims in Pittsburgh. Joining us will be the Reverend Jacob Smith of Calvary-St. George’s with whom I teach a weekly class.
The following Shabbat evening happens to be the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the violent anti-Jewish pogrom that took place in Germany over 48 hours beginning on November 9, 1938. The late Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg relates the following memory:
The Nazis had been in power for only four months when I became a Bar Mitzvah. Though the actual terror had not yet been fully unleashed, life for the Jews of Germany had already changed drastically. As I stood on the bimah of my synagogue, chanting my Torah portion, a bunch of storm troopers happened to goose-step by in the street outside, singing their songs of hate. I shall never forget that moment. For somehow it seemed to me even then, that there were two kinds of voices pitted against each other – the raucous sounds of violence and the chants the synagogue inspired. It became very important that their voices should not drown out mine. I was completely hoarse by the time I finished my portion.
What was an impression to a child soon became a reality to Germany’s dwindling Jews. In those fateful five years – from 1933 to the Kristallnacht in 1938 – the synagogue pulpits were indeed almost the only places where ethical and humane values were preached and pitted against the Nazi message of barbarism…
It was in 1952 that I saw my synagogue again. It had received a direct hit during the bombardment of Berlin and was in ruins. I climbed over the wall of surrounding rubble and stood again in the now roofless, scarred interior. And where I had once stood as a Bar Mitzvah boy, there – out of the cracks of the marble floor – an ugly little tree was growing. Destruction, decay, desecration were all around me. Not only a synagogue – my synagogue – a whole world was gone. And then I looked up. And, by some miracle the golden Hebrew letters over the Ark were still there and, standing by the ugly little tree, I could still recognize them. And they read: Etz Hayyim He – It is a Tree of Life. By 1955 what was left of my synagogue had been torn down. In its place there was a plaque – as there are plaques all over Germany now: “Here once stood a Synagogue…”
I pray for two things. One: that nothing we ever do or fail to do will cause our children to come across new plaques which read “Here once stood a Synagogue.” The other, that through trauma, tears, and terror, we shall always have the courage, faith and the pride to say of our Jewish destiny, “It is a Tree of Life.”