Why the Pittsburgh Shooting is Different

We woke up on Thursday morning to the sickening news that 12 people had been killed by a gunman inside a California country-western dance bar that was hosting an event for college students. The painful, undeniable fact is that becoming the victim of gun violence in the United States has become a part of our daily life. And we are all at risk.   We are at risk at our houses of worship.   We are at risk attending a concert. We are at risk at a bar. We are at risk at a night club. We are at risk in a movie theater. We are at risk on a college campus.  Kindergartners and High School students are at risk. We are at risk in a supermarket. This September alone, there were 42 murders and 214 shootings in Chicago. Chicago Police Deputy Superintendent Anthony Riccio called that “progress” because there were 60 murders and 257 shootings in Chicago a year before in September. Progress?  Not for those 42 families who lost loved ones in September.  Since 2012 there have been at least 14 senseless shootings in Churches in the United States that led to fatalities. Just a year ago, a 21year old man opened fire at a Baptist church in Texas, killing 26 people. In June, 2015 Dylan Roof killed nine African American worshippers, including their pastor, at the Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2012 six members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, were fatally shot by a self -described white supremacist. This is the America we live in.

From this perspective, the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue two weeks ago is just another attack on on a long list of attacks on Americans going about our daily lives. But the killing of American Jews fits into a larger narrative, one that transcends the gun violence occurring in American society today. One rabbi began his sermon on the subject by writing, “It’s hard to believe that along with Masada and York, England ……..Warsaw, Poland and Babi Yar in the Ukraine, and countless other [places] … we now have to add the city of Pittsburgh as being one of those places that become a part of our people’s history, with the eleven Jews that were massacred there for no other reason than being Jewish.” The massacre in Pittsburgh is a part of the long history of anti-Semitism that began well before Columbus came to these shores. When the shooter shouted “All Jews must die” when he stormed the Tree of Life synagogue, he was using the language of Muslim fundamentalists of today, the German Nazis and the Hungarian Arrow Cross before them, and the Cossack Marauders before them, and the Chmielnicki pogromists before them, and the Crusaders before them, and the Romans before them. He was tapping in to a vein of hatred against our people that goes back 2500 years to the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. So whereas the violence in Pittsburgh is part and parcel of  the general pattern of violence that other groups have experienced in recent years in the United States, it also has the particular scourge of anti-Semitism that has been part of the very fabric of Western Civilization since its inception.

In this instance, it is clear that the Jewish community was targeted because of the value we place on extending a helping hand to the stranger, of standing up for the needy and oppressed.   This time the stranger, the other, the besieged are migrant families seeking refuge in our land.

We know all too well how vulnerable the stranger can be. Our Torah portion for this week relates that Isaac and his family were forced to leave their homes because of famine. They settled in the Land of the Philistines. The Torah tells us that as a refugee to this new land Isaac fears for his life. Yet he settles down, prospers and even becomes wealthy. The natives envy him and accuse him of prospering by exploiting them. They stop up his wells and his is forced to leave. In his new location he digs another well, but the natives claim that the water is theirs. They take the water, although they are willing to let Isaac have the hole. Isaac digs yet another well, but the natives dispute the ownership of that as well. He is forced again to uproot his family and move south, where finally he finds a place to settle.

The  envy, hatred, bigotry and xenophobia that our father Isaac experienced are all too common experiences of refugees, whether they are fleeing famine, violence, or political persecution in all its forms. On his internet postings, the Pittsburgh attacker cited the work of an agency whose acronym is HIAS. He claimed this agency was helping to transport migrant caravans through Mexico that threaten, he said, to “invade” our country. The Hebrew Immigrant Aide Society, or HIAS, is an organization formed by American Jews on the Lower East Side of NYC in 1881. It aimed to help fellow Jews fleeing to America from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. HIAS helped 2 million Jews who fled from Russia, Austrio-Hungary and Romania settle in the United States between 1881 and 1924. Later they helped Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe, Jews fleeing Hungary in 1956, Cuba in 1960, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Ethiopia in 1977, Iran in 1979 and the Jews of the Former Soviet Union since 1980. Since 2000 HIAS has expanded its work to include resettlement of non-Jewish refugees, both in the United States and across the world.

Today marks the 80th anniversary of “Kristallnacht,” the “Night of Broken Glass,” referring to the night in Germany and Austria where thousands of windows were shattered in Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. This pogrom was one more step on the path toward the Shoah, the systematic destruction of European Jewry. From this we learn that hatred and intolerance must be confronted whenever and wherever they appear.

CBS member Kim Sharon wrote on Facebook about one of the most heart-breaking moments for her following the tragedy at the Tree of a Life synagogue last week. That was when her teen age daughter told her that she didn’t think anyone but Jews would care. But the outpouring of love, empathy, compassion and support that has come from our non-Jewish neighbors  this past Sunday night was overwhelming.  As you probably know by now, 850 people packed our synagogue on in what was undoubtedly the largest gathering ever to take place here. All of these friends, families, neighbors, and strangers understood that an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh is an attack on the entire People of Israel — and on democracy itself.

Shabbat Shalom