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October 29, 2018 10:09 pm

How to Respond to the Unspeakable Tragedy in Pittsburgh

avatar by Elisha Wiesel

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A woman reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday’s shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Cathal McNaughton.

Adapted from remarks delivered at Ansche Chesed community vigil on New York’s Upper West Side on Oct 27th, 2018. 

How to respond to unspeakable tragedy?

Even an event as tragic as this threatens to divide us rather than unite us.

I read the news articles on my Facebook feed:

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From the Corbyn left in England, a whisper that the Jews bring this on themselves for having failed to make peace in Israel with our Palestinian neighbors.

From the NRA followers right here at home, a suggestion that more guns will fix the problem.

From the Jews on the liberal extreme, I find an online comment suggesting that their Republican brethren are kapos – yes, that word is used – and are to blame for the shooting.

And from some in Israel, a sad belief that American Jews seem to think this is different from what Israel lives with every day, and a sad disbelief to see what appears to be a condolence letter from Hamas sent to American Jewry.

How to respond to unspeakable tragedy? And I think to myself: How would my father respond?

He didn’t fight or lower himself into the muck with those who had only nasty things to say.

He didn’t debate Holocaust deniers, or right-wing nationalists, or anti-Zionists whose total preoccupation with Israel exposed them as antisemites.

He showed up. He shone a light. He became a light, by how he lived.

He was kind and gentle to others. He listened. He spoke. He put questions to those who needed to hear them. And he lived as a Jew.

Which is what we can say about our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh.

They lived and died as Jews, davening (praying) on Shabbos.

They died because they were Jews, because they clung to Jewish values in a time where values are adrift, and because they lived those values. They faced the death of the Jewish people that is assimilation and they stood against it, continuing to worship despite their dwindling numbers. They led with compassion and included two developmentally disabled brothers – counted among the deceased – fully into their service. And they and their fellow congregations in Squirrel Hill put the very important question on the table of our obligation to those seeking refuge in this country. They welcomed HIAS and for this they were killed.

We as Jews have survived for thousands of years and have tens of thousands of opinions. How will we work together to confront hatred when we disagree on so many things? We will work together because our disagreements are how we will make progress. Because those disagreements put us in positions to fix different things.

If you march for progressive values, then it is your prerogative and your responsibility to fix the progressive left. Those shouting from across the aisle of social media will never achieve that, but you can. You are associated with movements whose leaders declare that supporting women’s rights and the rights of our African-American brothers and sisters to not be terrorized by the police are inextricably linked with the fight against a safe and secure Jewish homeland, movements where the Magen David (Star of David) is barred from Pride parades. Fight that antisemitism, and do it without compromising for an instant on seeking for this to be a country that is blind to skin color, sexual orientation or gender.

If you are on the conservative side of policy, then it is your prerogative and your responsibility to for God’s sake fix the nationalist right. Those shouting from across the aisle of social media will never achieve that, but you can. You are associated with movements where assault rifles are seen as our national inheritance, where racists hear a call to action even as leaders insist none has gone out, where the trait of compassion for the stranger is in danger of being extinguished – even as the challenges of how and for whom to create paths to citizenship cry out for creativity and collaboration. Fight that deaf ear and that cold-heartedness, and do it without compromising for an instant on seeking for this to be a country that is secure and prosperous.

And if you somehow find yourself caught in the center – God help you, then expect hatred from all corners – but it is your prerogative and your responsibility to build bridges and create spaces where well-meaning and thoughtful people can come together to find solutions.

Make this world better exactly where you find yourself in it. Do so precisely where you are in your politics, where you are in your faith – do you, after all, think the shooter stopped to see if there was a mechitza (room divider between women’s and men’s sections) in the Tree of Life synagogue? – and make this world better where you are in your everyday life.

Show your children that you are committed to Jewish values. Observe one more mitzvah (good deed). Talk to one more person whom you are tempted to yell at. And go to shul (synagogue) next Shabbos and keep those values alive.

Elisha Wiesel is an American businessman and the only child of Jewish writer, activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

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