According to statistics released by the FBI, of the approximately 3,000 hate crimes committed against religious groups in the US in 2016, more than half were committed against Jews.
By Rabbi Kenneth Brander | October 31, 2018
A whirlwind of emotions has swept up Jews worldwide in the wake of the shocking and horrifying terrorist attack at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat. In sifting through them, I find several messages coming from Pittsburgh as a proud American and a newly minted Israeli.
First and foremost, urgent concerns have resurfaced regarding a significant uptick in antisemitism in the United States, fueled by polarizing political rhetoric and self-radicalization on social media platforms.
According to statistics released by the FBI, of the approximately 3,000 hate crimes committed against religious groups in the US in 2016, more than half were committed against Jews. Mindful of the fact that Jews comprise just 2% of the US population, this is a truly frightening statistic.
Worse, the Anti-Defamation League reported that 2017 saw a 57% increase in antisemitic incidents in the US over the previous year, the most dramatic increase in nearly 40 years. And for the first time in nearly a decade, antisemitic incidents occurred in all 50 states.
The American Jewish community, for so long an anomaly to much of Jewish history, now faces an unprecedented level of vulnerability. In Pittsburgh, antisemitic violence has reached a new level in striking the
Jewish people’s crown jewel, the synagogue. On the day in which Jews the world over read the biblical portion concerning the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, this holy community of Pittsburgh offered 11 sacrifices in its synagogue, becoming the largest altar of martyrdom in American Jewish history.
Does the deadly shooting at Tree of Life mark the crescendo of this trend? Will it now recede, as a rediscovered attentiveness leads to the pushing of this societal scourge back under the rock from which it crawled? Or does it mark a new phase in which Jews and Jewish institutions increasingly become marked targets? I have no expertise to answer such a question. Yet fear abounds, and this is a concern emanating from Pittsburgh.
At the same time, there is a parallel phenomenon that needs to be celebrated. It has been incredibly inspiring to see the outpouring of expressions of support for the community in mourning. A young Israeli woman currently performing her Sherut Leumi (National Service) in Pittsburgh asked Jewish communities worldwide to post pictures of support for the Jewish community there. The response has been remarkable, with hundreds of posts flowing in. The messages of love, encouragement, and caring to this horrific event have come from all types of people, of all faith systems, from all over the world.
Building on this response, we must transform this trauma into concrete action. The gunman who entered Tree of Life did not first check to see if it was an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform synagogue. He was determined to kill Jews. Period. Full stop.
That is why it is precisely when we are threatened and attacked that we must summon all of our efforts to reasserting the centrality of the concept of “Klal Yisrael,” the entirety of the Jewish people, regardless of level of ritual observance or beliefs.
When we are being attacked for no reason other than that we are Jewish, it is not only counterproductive but immoral to draw lines dividing ourselves from one another. We must take a moment to appreciate the fact that our philosophical and religious differences must not prevent us from including all Jews as members of Klal Yisrael. We are the only people who can divide us. We must do everything we can to keep ourselves whole.
This means that we must take greater care in how we speak with each other. It means that we must not tolerate when Jewish leaders disparage other Jews. We simply cannot remain silent when it occurs; if we do, we are part of the problem, not the solution.
When tragedies like these occur, we must ask ourselves: How will history judge us? How did we respond to the call of the hour? What kind of legacy with regard to cementing Jewish unity are we leaving for our children and grandchildren?
Before we can be an or la’goyim – “a light unto the nations” – we must first set an example in our own midst. For the sake of our people, we must be accepting and loving of each and every member of our people.
So let us stand together in solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue and with the entire Pittsburgh community. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – “All Jews are responsible for one another.” We are united in times of grief and in times of sorrow; we must be united in the fight against bigotry and violence, and we will remain united as the community builds toward recovery and strength.
We pray that we will emerge from this difficult time stronger and more united than ever before. This is perhaps the most important lesson that we can immediately integrate into our daily lives.
The author, Rabbi Brander, is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world.