There are those in our community who believe Jewish activists should not bring politics into the public square, particularly given what happened in our community two years ago, when 11 Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life building. But I feel it is possible to simultaneously hold space for individual and collective grief while speaking truth to power. By doing both, we can be a united community and also one that acknowledges there are multiple ways of acting on our Jewish values. This work is complex and can only be built in relationship with one another.
Spiritual activism is about creating space to both comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable. This is a fine line to walk and requires deep discernment about which role to play at any given moment. As a member of Bend the Arc, I feel it is necessary to speak to political concerns relating to white supremacy and the dangerous rhetoric that has come out of this White House.
Our Jewish community is divided on what role activists can and should play. This became clear to me after the shooting at the Tree of Life building, when members of Bend the Arc were accused of being divisive and criticized for holding a protest march on the day of Trump’s visit to Squirrel Hill.
Yes, we felt it had to get political. It had to get political when the attack on our community was motivated by racist rhetoric about Jews welcoming in refugees, classic anti-Semitic tropes based on the notion that Jews are at fault for “darkening America.” It had to get political because we had a sitting president who had not specifically renounced white nationalism, which is animated by anti-Semitism. And it has to get political when we see racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and any other form of bigotry being not only accepted by those who hold the highest levels of government, but actually uplifted.
It has to get political because we as American Jews must use our voices. We cannot just rage on social media or express concern on pulpits — we have to pray with our feet.
What struck me most during the days following the attack was how much support we got from those around our city, as well as the response from around the world. Not only was our Jewish community, directly impacted by this trauma, but so was the entire city of Pittsburgh. So many caring people from every neighborhood wanted a place to come together to both express their anguish and to comfort us. This is what we should do as neighbors.
In our own time of crisis, allowing others to join our march against hatred, division and anti-Semitism was healing. It was a reminder that we are not alone, that there are those who stand with us as we surely stand with them.
We all have different ways of processing trauma and those most directly affected needed to be sheltered and protected following the Tree of Life attack. But many of us recognized we had a different role to play. I would like to think our community has the capacity to support both of these things.
Our city and our country are divided along lines of race, class, religion and status of citizenship. So many are left behind, especially during the current pandemic. Now is not the time for silence.
Rabbi Tarfon taught that we are not responsible to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from trying. The work we do as activists is not about being divisive. It is about radical inclusion and certainly falls in line with Rabbi Tarfon’s charge to try to fix what is broken, and also to realize we cannot do it alone. We need to build strong relationships across our city so that we may know more about one another’s lived experiences and come to recognize our personal views are largely determined by our own narrow worlds. We must begin to recognize that we are, as one of our communal slogans touts, stronger together. Building broad coalitions of solidarity will only further strengthen our Jewish community.
It is through creating and practicing bold visions of radical justice, like the “Beloved Community” of Martin Luther King, Jr., that we work with others to cultivate a society which draws upon our shared humanity. Creating space for more progressive voices and actions should not be seen as a threat to our survival as a Jewish people. We need to create spaces in which we can learn to listen better and then ask: What are we willing to dare ourselves to discuss? What discomfort are we willing to sit with so that others may be heard, so that we all might learn something and so that the new paradigms represented by younger Jews and generations coming up can be a part of the dialogue? Who are we willing to become?
The goal of being a united community is a lofty one and something we took great pride in while the cameras were on us after Oct. 27, 2018. All of the accolades about who we are and what we represent are true. And yet, there is another more complex and challenging narrative underneath this rosy exterior. Expecting total agreement on all communal issues is not realistic. How can we delve into challenging conversations in ways that push the envelope without causing further harm?
Now, two years after the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history played out in our own backyard, perhaps we are ready to begin wading, like Nachshon, into the waters of discomfort without knowing where they will lead us. It is time to let go of who we thought we had to be and to dream about who we want to become. Our children will thank us for it. PJC
Sara Stock Mayo is an independent spiritual leader/co-leader of Kesher Pittsburgh and an activist with Bend the Arc.