Monday, February 17, 2020 -
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Look for the helpers

Bloodshed at a synagogue called Tree of Life. The painful irony.

This coming Shabbat, just before the Torah is returned to the ark, when almost every Jewish congregation will sing the melodious “Eitz Chaim,” “Tree of Life,” it is now the visages and images of the 11 congregants, one by one, whom we shall think of, as the Torah is nestled in the Ark. Until last Shabbat they were private individuals known only to their family and friends. Now that they were gunned down in the midst of their Shabbat prayers — gunned down for being Jewish — it is they whom we shall think of.

These 11 souls have joined the long line of those who in our tradition are known as having died al kiddush Hashem, or as kedoshim, people who are killed for no other reason other than being Jewish.

We’ve always learned of these holy people, and even of entire communities of these holy people, be they in Mainz, Germany, in York, England, and, tragically, the list goes on and on.

This reality painfully continues in our one Jewish country, Israel.

But not in America. Somehow America was never part of that equation for us. Being killed for being Jewish? In America? Can’t be. And yet, it just was.

That innocent time for American Jews ended forever last Shabbat.

America, and specifically, the Tree of Life Synagogue, have now joined that ever so real dimension of Jewish history.

Which is especially difficult to consider when we are still “within living memory of the Holocaust,” yet a white supremacist killer shouts: “All Jews must die.” A blood soaked siddur is not something we associate with an American shul.

Even so, a part of me always worried about precisely such a scenario in my own shul.

We’ve all had the conversation around our Shabbat tables about concern for our safety, about if and when to hire security guards at shul, and anxiety as talk of emergency shul drills became the norm. Especially in recent years, as there was a rise in anti-Semitism. Just three or four years ago, right here in Denver an entire city block was defaced by swastikas and hateful rhetoric.

Anti-Semitism, it’s as old as Judaism. As Prof. Deborah Lipstadt recalled, “It’s the oldest hate in the world.”

One of the worshippers at Tree of Life, who survived the harrowing massacre, said: “I don’t know why he thinks the Jews are responsible for all the ills in the world, but he’s not the first and he won’t be the last. Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear . . . It breaks my heart.”

Not only was this violent act of hate against Jews committed on the shores of America, but of all places, literally in Mr. Fred Rogers’ neighborhood. Not on his famously kind TV show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or its “make-believe” segment that so many of us grew up on; but in his real-life Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Mr. Rogers, who famously used to say: “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was this past week. The TV show’s message and guidance of gentle kindness came to life. In Mr Rogers’ neighborhood, all those “helpers” emerged. Jews and non-Jews alike. The Muslim student who lived nearby, walking among the wounded and shocked, offering his home cooked bowl of lentils, explaining he was careful to keep it kosher; his community, which, within hours of the attack, raised funds to help the congregation in its hour of need, even going so far as to offer to protect the synagogue this Shabbat with their own bodies; the outpouring of Christian friends and I’m sure atheists, too. We’re all just people responding with the one thing in common to us all: our humanity. Neighbors who turned out in droves for the outdoor candlelit Havdalah service in the rain . . . thousands, canopied by umbrellas, departing from this shattering Shabbos into the mundane of the weekday, together with their Jewish neighbors.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

When I saw the ages of those murdered listed — the elderly of the synagogue — my mind immediately went to the equivalent of the elderly of my shul. I felt like I knew these people who were killed. You know, the ones who are always first to arrive, the ones the shul always counts on for a minyan, the ones who are there to help everyone and who put community above all else.

Then there was news about the intellectually disabled brothers. The picture painted of David and Cecil Rosenthal, these two sweet souls known as gentle giants, lived as brothers and then died as brothers. The vulnerability of it just screamed off the page. Amalek! I thought to myself. To add cruelty on top of cruelty, this white supremacist Nazi pursued the weak, the vulnerable, just like Amalek did. How truly sick.

Then I came across Lou Weiss’ article, “Amalek Comes To Pittsburgh,” in the Wall Street Journal, a must read. Within this added twist of horror came the understanding how truly special “Tree of Life” congregation is. A holy sanctuary of compassion and inclusivity for all.

As the vigils from around America and the world were revealed — so many different types of people standing shoulder to shoulder — the inspiring singing and unity were truly touching.

We all grieved together. We recommitted to respect and dignify one another. We stood together in solidarity with Tree of Life, and with others who are not Jewish, in solidarity with the Jewish people, in the name of human decency. I truly want to believe that ultimately love will prevail over hate.

Eerily, or presciently, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life, who said, “my holy place has been defiled,”posted this dvar Torah on the shul’s website the week prior to the deadly Shabbat:

“Many of us manage to find the time to attend a funeral, but do not possess the same fervor when it comes to a joyous event . . . we have a finite, limited amount of s’machot (the plural of simcha, a joyous milestone/occasion) in our lives . . . by not participating as fully as possible in s’machot we deprive ourselves of joy and the opportunity to celebrate with others . . . comforting a mourner is a mitzvah, and so is bringing joy to a newly married couple at their wedding.

“There is a story told in the Talmud of a wedding procession and a funeral procession heading along parallel roads, with the roads intersecting. The question asked is: when they meet at the fork, which procession goes first, funeral or wedding? The answer is wedding, as the joy of the couple takes precedence. In fact, the funeral procession is to move out of sight so that their joy is not lessened . . . we value joy so much in Judaism that upon taking leave from a funeral or a shiva house, the customary statement one makes (in Yiddish) is “nor oyf simches, only for s’machot.” While death is inevitable and a part of life, we still take our leave with the best possible blessing, to meet at joyous occasions. And so I say to you: nor oyf simches!”

May we sow the seeds of love and respect, of human dignity and compassion for the stranger in our midst; may we escort the Torah to its ark while singing “Eitz Chaim,” Tree of Life, without pain; may we plant and water seeds and trees that bring the joy of life’s milestones, auf simches.

May we meet at the fork of the road, and reap.

Yehi zichram baruch. May the memories of those who died be for a blessing.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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