Make Sanctuaries Safe Again
This past Saturday, just minutes after news broke that fellow Jews had been murdered for being Jewish, a total stranger responded to something I’d written on Twitter with some remarkably anti-Semitic hatred. This has become the norm for so many disenfranchised people in minority groups around the world when they express remorse over the loss of life from within their communities
In my case, I had attempted to process my intense grief over yet another hateful act of terror by revisiting an essay I'd written in 2017, in which I’d detailed the deeply personal and deeply troublesome micro- and macro experiences I've had with anti-Semitism. I reposted the essay to my Twitter feed, commenting on how awful it felt to see it now as foreshadowing the escalation of anti-Semitism in the age of Trump, and a mere few minutes later, this Twitter user with an anti-Semitic username and a predilection for anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-black hatespeak found me, reposted my essay to his followers, and accused me of being “part of the problem.”
Suffice it to say, I reported this man, and took my account into private mode, but I want to point out to the uninitiated that this person had to be actively searching Twitter for anyone posting about Jews in order to find me, which means this guy was looking for chum, less than an hour after the deadliest act of terror against American Jews had transpired. Let that sink in for a minute.
American Jews all grew up with the people who were murdered on Saturday. We all know these folks from our shuls, and we’ve seen them all our lives, on Shabbos, on the High Holidays, in our day schools and at our kosher supermarkets. We nod, and shake hands, and split donuts and tiny cups of orange juice with them after Yom Kippur. We stand in their honor when they're called to the Torah, we respond with intention when they mourn their loved ones, and our cars and breakfronts are stuffed with leather yarmulkas emblazoned on the underside with their wedding dates in cracked gold-painted letters.
The instant the news broke, every American Jew, from all walks of life - religious, secular, practicing and lapsed - pictured the insides of every large synagogue sanctuary we've ever visited. We recalled the way a voice echoes off the vaulted ceilings, the way an eternal flame flickers electrically in a repetitive crackle, the way a red or blue prayer book feels and sounds as it's slipped into the back of a pew, like a fine grit sandpaper smoothed down by countless hands across time.
We saw the crushed maroon velvet of a heavily draped piece of fabric on our pulpits - an old-world remnant brought into the newer chapels of the light wood and Jerusalem stone and frosted glass of the modern age. We pictured the sanctuaries of our childhoods, which means we pictured the sanctuaries of our grandparents, because that's where it all began for each of us. We thought of the Torah scroll, tightly wound and awkwardly slumped against the inside of its holy resting place, and we remembered our bar and bat mitzvahs when we read from those Torahs and those same grandparents beamed with pride.
We recalled all of these sights and sounds, textures and memories, and processed them instantaneously as a fond remembrance, now irrevocably dripping with blood. On Saturday, every American Jew was forced to imagine the end of their own Jewish identity as if witnessing it from a creaky seat they once occupied on Rosh Hashanah. Ever since, I've tried to envision my hand on the door handle of any shul, at some future date and time, and at the moment I'm not sure yet if I could open that door.
To live by-the-book when it comes to Jewish practice is to commit to hundreds of disciplines and observances, each designed to separate and elevate the sacred from the profane. Judaism is a flawed, complicated, extremely old theology, and we, as its practitioners, are never without our own flaws. But the parts that make sense, that persevere and stand for justice, are carved in stone because they have the weight of bedrock.
We mark our bodies in ritual, and we purify ourselves in nature. We conserve our resources, and we give thanks for everything, including just the ability to go to the bathroom. We complicate our thinking in order to simplify our practices, and we believe in the redemptive powers of repentance and charity, even above prayer. We document our histories, remember our ancestors, commemorate our fallen, protect our communities, and we never lock our homes to anyone, even after they try to kill us. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Spock didn't invent that; the Torah did.
This particular synagogue in Pittsburgh was home to many congregations, which is, in so many ways, representative of the tent of Judaism itself. This is what we do - we assemble, we learn, we discuss, and even when we're broken down by deeply-held beliefs into smaller groups, we reunite in practice, in spirit, and in the universal truths found in the Torahs that we've written for centuries. We've carried those Torahs through deserts, we've carried those Torahs through concentration camps, and we've carried those Torahs through large sanctuaries that have now dripped with blood.
We do so because the Torah has a very special quality; one which we have ascribed to it on faith, one which we reiterate in prayer every Saturday morning when we gently dance with it around our congregations, kiss it reverently, read from it honorably, and care for it, unwaveringly. It is this very same quality and prayer that inspired the name of this beautiful synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Despite our faults, our missteps, and the countless ways we’ve lost the thread over the centuries; despite famine and plague, murder and holocaust, despite sacrifice and strife, mourning and sadness, it is indeed this quality and this prayer that has caused Judaism to survive, and it will be this quality and this prayer that helps me one day return to a synagogue with more faith than terror.
"It is a tree of life for those who grasp it," we intone. "Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”