To reflect means that we call upon a body of prior experiences to guide us in our assessment. For the Jewish community of the United States, we have no prior experience that can provide sufficient history for proper reflection of what happened to us on Oct. 27, 2018. What we do possess is a treasury of responses following that horrible day. It is likely that persons or events may be overlooked in my meager attempt to reflect upon the worst massacre to befall the American Jewish community in its 355-year history. The oversights are mine alone, and I humbly apologize to any who might be offended. Memory is not always a friend.
The world responded in ways that I could never have anticipated. Clergy and people of all faiths reached out not merely to sympathize, but to share in their own disbelief and grief. Friends and strangers alike descended upon Pittsburgh during the week of funerals, fulfilling the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, and performing what my new friend Pastor Eric Manning of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, modeled — “a ministry of presence” — just by being there. I quickly learned that an attack upon Jews praying in a synagogue on their Sabbath was not only an attack upon the world Jewish community, but it was an attack upon all people of faith. Not only were we consistently embraced in a worldwide hug, but the vast humanity on this planet strenuously rejected the inhumanity of the perpetrator, reassuring us that this does not represent them.
The nonstop letters, cards, emails and gifts that we received were incredible. In the immediate aftermath, we were overwhelmed emotionally, as we were with the sheer volume of communications received. It is likely that warm wishes and gifts may have been overlooked or misplaced, and I hope that you can forgive us for any unintended slights or failures. It truly made me wonder if it is possible to receive too much love. Despite our lack of organization, the outpouring of support knows no bounds. We can never truly find the right words to say, “thank you,” as these two words seem insufficient, but they will have to do for now. Thank you.
The residents of Greater Pittsburgh demonstrated to the world that people can live together in peace with mutual respect, and that they must. While we certainly have much work ahead to do, people from all faiths, colors and sexual orientations resoundingly affirmed their common humanity with us, and continue to do so one year later. I find this so reassuring at a time when we can use all the reassurances that we can get.
Still, the rise in “H speech” throughout our nation, indeed throughout the world, makes us wonder what happened to civility. The intentions of the founders of the United States were quite noble. It is we, their inheritors, who have much work to do if we want to achieve their lofty goals in this experiment called democracy.
I have come to learn the stories of fellow citizens that I knew not: stories of inequality, racism, bigotry and pure “H.” I can see how easy it may be to journey to the dark side, sometimes unintentionally, by those of us who should know better. The problems of our society can only be addressed when we know what it is like to walk a mile in our fellow’s shoes. To add to this, it is true that we do not really know our neighbors. We remain cloistered in our own silos, rarely venturing out to learn who is living in a nearby silo. Only when we know our neighbors can we use our commonalities to work for the betterment of society.
It can be easy to surrender to the dark forces, as the mind-numbing torrent of bad news anesthetizes us to the realities we face. I have come to appreciate a far more important four-letter H word: hope. I not only continue to hope for a better world, but I am trying to find avenues to do so. I refuse to give up on humanity, and thus I have hope. God has guided me well so far, and I feel God’s reassuring embrace every day. Psalm 27 concludes with the following: “Hope in God. Strengthen your heart, and hope in God.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers is the rabbi of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation.