I am writing to you early, as the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh weighs heavily on my heart.
So much has already been written and shared: From the media to Jewish and general organization throughout the U.S., we have heard and read expressions of shock and sadness.
Yesterday, many of us attended the Shabbat service in our own synagogue. Despite the storm, we came together to enjoy the Sabbath and to learn from a terrific guest speaker.
We joined, as did worshippers at the Tree of Life, without fear that a madman would interrupt the sanctity of our ritual by indiscriminately murdering innocent people.
Today, we think otherwise…
Yesterday at the Tree of Life, Jews gathered for a number of celebrations. Some were present to celebrate a baby naming. Others attended the various services offering in the synagogue.
I have known the rabbi from the Tree of Life since we were teenagers. We spent a summer together traveling by bus through the U.S. with 45 teenagers. We have celebrated and studied together.
The horrors yesterday, therefore, fill me with deep emotion on a variety of levels. Last night, I reached out to him and to another Pittsburgh colleague, who was interviewed on TV throughout the night.
At first impulse, many of us are probably filled with anger. Our initial reaction might be to do as the President initially suggested, by arming our houses of worship. Discussions about future security will require serious but rational thinking. Whatever we and other synagogues ultimately decide, I can assure you that no armed guard will resolve an issue which runs much deeper than some escalated security.
The murderer from yesterday is a known anti-Semite. His poison has been published throughout social media. His intentions were well known: He hates Jews.
Although hatred of Jews is (sadly) an old story, we are evolving into a society which breeds a climate of hate, suspicion, xenophobia and intolerance.
Whatever our views about immigration, the media or supporters of the “wrong” political party, when we demonize one another we create an atmosphere of blind and uncontrollable hate and resentment.
For some of us, our strong disagreements remain in the realm of words. For others, however, words become the steppingstone for acts of violence committed against people whom we now brand as enemies.
Our hatred manifests itself in the kind of horrors we all witnessed yesterday. On college campuses alone, our Jewish children have become targets for those whose public hatred of Israel (and Jews) leads to concern about the safety and security our students deserve.
My ideal is for individuals and organizations throughout the country to speak about houses of worship—like The Tree of Life—as inspiring models for creating a holy place filled with kindness, compassion and tolerance.
Instead, people throughout America speak today about The Tree of Life as the latest illustration of the cruelty our society is cultivating.
So, today we mourn; but, we must extend ourselves well beyond passive mourning.
What can we do?
On a practical and immediate level, I have complete confidence that our synagogue will take whatever steps possible to further ensure the security and well-being of anyone who enters our sacred space.
Enhanced measures of security in houses of worship are discussions taking place throughout the country.
It is sad that we must devote so much attention to security at the expense of Torah, but the safety of our community is a priority.
In addition, when we hear someone speaking intolerantly; or we see intolerance conveyed on our social media, we have a sacred duty to respond.
Even in our family discussions, we have an obligation to call out the prejudices and narrow-minded opinions offered by loved ones. Difference of opinion does not mean condoning hatred.
On a more spiritual level:
Now is the time for us to stand together—not only in worship, but in expressions of solidarity as a Jewish community.
We must continue to honor the synagogue as a sacred place which will continue to bring us together in peace, celebration and friendship.
Throughout Jewish history we have stood up to hatred and bigotry; now is the time to reaffirm that stance.
Finally, the first step toward healing begins with each of us. Whatever your political or social views, the rhetoric in our nation must change.
We can no longer demonize one another and accept an atmosphere of intolerance and polarization.
We cannot tolerate racism and hatred against people of a different complexion, ethnicity or gender orientation (as was displayed in such ugly fashion this past week in Great Neck).
No one has monopoly over truth, but no one has any right to violate the honor and dignity of any person because our beliefs may differ.
Several times (including next week in this newspaper), I have invoked the names of Hillel and Shammai; the two great Rabbinic authorities of ancient Israel.
Hillel generally expressed a more lenient interpretation of Jewish law; Shammai generally expressed a more strict reading of tradition.
Yet, our rabbinic texts indicate that when the students of Hillel sat down to deliberate an issue, the opinions of Shammai were always examined first.
A mutual respect existed between both schools of interpretation; everyone spoke in the spirit of dignity and honor.
In all of our discussions, from the top levels of Washington to the conversation around our dinner table, we need to recommit to the spirit and practice of Hillel and Shammai.
It is imperative that we remind ourselves how America’s greatness lies in its diversity and openness.
We may not prevent every mad person on Earth from acting upon his/her irrational hatred and anger, but we can help eliminate the madness in each of us.
Even as we are mindful of our security, if any of you wish to pray for the victims in Pittsburgh, please feel free to come into our sanctuary during regular hours of operation.
If before or after hours you wish to do so, please contact me and I will pray with you.
In the meantime, may we all pray for the families of The Tree of Life. And, may we pray that never again will there be the need for such a prayer.
—Rabbi Michael Klayman
Lake Success Jewish Center