I came out of Shabbat services last Saturday morning on a spiritual high. We had gathered in the Chapel downstairs to spend the morning enjoying a wonderful breakfast as we do every week, we had studied together words from the Torah and the haftarah. We had a lovely service that included some regulars, some old friends, and some newer faces, too. We sang. We prayed. We remembered. We talked about hope for the future.
I came out of the service last Saturday and walked down the hallway to my study, and there a saw that there was a message waiting for me from a friend, the Rev. Andrea Wyatt, Rector of St. David’s on the Hill Episcopal Church here in Cranston. I read her words: “Dear Rabbi Jeff, I’m listening to news coming out of Pittsburgh. I wanted to reach out and say that I am thinking of you, and all of us in our troubled nation. When St. David’s gathers tonight and tomorrow for worship, we will be holding your community in prayer. Peace be with you.”
You can imagine how my heart sank at that moment. “Oh, no. What just happened?” It did not take me long to find out. My heart was broken when I learned what you all already know.
Eleven Jewish men and women were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the worst act of anti-semitic violence in U.S. history. I want to name and remember the victims right now:
• Joyce Fienberg, 75, a retired research specialist, a small woman who lit up a room.
• Richard Gottfried, 65, “Dr. Rich,” a dentist who volunteered at free dental clinics who was planning on retiring in a few months.
• Rose Mallinger, 97, a former school secretary, the matriarch of her family. Her daughter is among the wounded.
• Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, a primary care physician who was a core member of his congregation.
• Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 & 55, inseparable brothers who both had intellectual disabilities. They were well known and beloved ambassadors of the community.
• Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 & 86, a married couple who were active in the community and whose wedding was at Tree of Life 60 years ago.
• Daniel Stein, 71, a former president of his synagogue and the president of the Tree of Life Men’s Club.
• Melvin Wax, 88, a retired accountant and grandfather who attended synagogue every week and often led services.
• Irving Younger, 69, the first person to greet people with a handshake as they entered the sanctuary. He also volunteered as a Little League coach.
I also want to share this with you: In the days since I found out about the shootings from Rev. Wyatt, I have heard and read so many stories from rabbinic colleagues across the country who also found out about the tragedy in Pittsburgh in much the same way. They, too, heard from their friends of other faiths – notably from other clergywomen and men – who reached out to them to express their sympathy and solidarity.
Over the past few days, I have received messages from literally dozens of clergy people and lay leaders of other faiths with words of support and condolences. I cannot tell you how grateful I am. The members of other faiths who have come out tonight – not just here in Cranston, but across the world – to sit in worship with their Jewish friends and neighbors is beautiful and so deeply appreciated. Thank you, my friends – ministers, pastors, priests, deacons, imams, clergy of all sorts, lay people of all faiths – who have cried with us and mourned with us over the past seven days. It means so very much.
In the days since the attack, I have heard many people say, "There are no words…" And it’s true. It is impossible to put into words the depth of our feelings, the way that we are broken inside over the shooting. Yet, there are some things that really do need to be said. It is not enough for us just to mourn the deaths and feel the agony of the world’s brokenness. We also need to speak out loud the many dimensions of this brutal act.
First and foremost, we need to speak the name of the hatred that led to the murder of eleven Jews. It is called anti-Semitism. It is the persistent and irrational hatred of Jews that has poisoned our world for millennia. It is a hatred that continues to falsely vilify Jews as demonic god killers. It is a hatred that sees Jews as preying on the blood of the innocent. It is a hatred that denigrates Jews as uniquely undeserving of a homeland and destined to wander the earth as nomads forever. It is a hatred that equates Jews with lechery, greed and carnality. It is a hatred that sees the Jew as a criminal desecrater of the holy. It is a hatred that sees Jews as the fomenters of global conspiracies to undermine the rule of godliness and truth in the world.
This is not some long-forgotten medieval lunacy. It is alive and all-too-well in our world today. The gunman who killed eleven middle-aged and elderly human beings, including a 97-year-old woman and two intellectually disabled men, believed that he was killing people who were – quote – “committing genocide against his people” – unquote. He is not at all alone in that belief. The delusion is still rampant. I see it growing in both dog whistles and in overt accusations almost every day. I hear it in the innuendo that behind every evil facing our society, there is a Jew. I will not stop talking about this hatred, and calling it by its name, until it ends.
We know, of course, that Jews are not the only victims of hatred and violence targeted against people because of their identity. Two days before the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, two African Americans were murdered at a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky. In that incident, the white gunman first tried to enter a predominantly black church, but was unable to get inside. Determined to kill Black people, he went to the nearby supermarket and opened fire in the store.
In addition to the dead in Pittsburgh, tonight we remember Maurice Stallard, age 69, a warm and easy-going man who always greeted people with a hug. He was accompanied by his 12-year-old grandson when he was shot and killed. We remember Vickie Lee Jones, 67, a retired administrator at a VA hospital who loved to travel and was a faithful member of her church. They are two more people shot dead in America for being Black. May their memories be a blessing.
The fomenters of hatred seek to divide our society by making everyone hate everyone else. We won’t let them. Tonight, we know that we are united. Whether it is anti-semitism, racism, homophobia, or any kind of ideology that denies the humanity of anyone, we are together in our stand against hatred.
Let me say something else that cannot go unsaid. The gunman in Pittsburgh made it clear that what he hates most about Jews is our work to aid and welcome refugees to the United States – human beings he called "invaders" on a social media post just seventeen days before the attack. He specifically made reference in that post to HIAS (the organization once called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and to the ballyhooed migrant caravan that has been so prominent in the news during this election season. Concerning HIAS – an organization that exists to bring comfort and aid to desperate people risking their lives to flee violence, misery and poverty – he called it “sugar-coated evil.”
Two weeks ago today, Temple Sinai was one of nearly 300 Jewish congregations across North America that participated in HIAS's National Refugee Shabbat. In this sanctuary two weeks ago, we heard Kathy Cloutier, the director of Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, talk to us about the ongoing needs of refugees and immigrants here in Rhode Island – people who come to our state from overseas with little more than a dream to live in safety and security. Rest assured that the attack in Pittsburgh will not deter us in our support for today’s "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
I am the son of a mother who was a war refugee who came to this country after escaping Nazism in 1940. Many others in this room have similar stories. Having been refugees and immigrants ourselves, the Jewish people will continue to fulfill the Bible’s commandment: "Befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
Something else to say tonight: This murder was done with a gun. Not just any gun. It was done with an AR-15 assault rifle, a light-weight semi-automatic weapon modeled on military weapons designed specifically to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Such weapons were banned for sale in the United States in 1994, but that law expired in 2004 when Congress failed to reauthorize it. Some say that banning weapons like this would only mean that law-abiding citizens would be prevented from buying them, while criminals would continue to get them on the black market. That’s probably true.
But why does any civilian need to have an assault rifle? Today, it is estimated that there are between five and ten million of these weapons in the U.S. They are one of the fastest growing segments of the firearms industry. Why? How does our society benefit from having so many of these weapons so easily accessible to almost anyone? Do we imagine that weapons designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible won’t be used by someone to do just that? How many more mass killings need to happen before we say, “Enough is enough”?
And here is the last thing that needs to be said tonight: This shooting appears to have been the act of a single, disturbed individual. But, of course, we know that it did not come out of nowhere. American society has become increasingly dominated by hateful rhetoric on all sides. I hear people on the right calling people on the left “angry mobs bent on destroying America.” I hear people on the left calling people on the right “Nazis” and “traitors” whose actions kill. It is inevitable that violent words like these will lead to violent action.
Simply put, we need to find a different way to do politics in America. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, let’s begin by each taking personal responsibility for our own rhetoric. Let’s not be sucked into an escalating war of words in which we dehumanize anyone with a different perspective than our own. The future of democracy may depend upon it.
There is no question tonight that we are heavy-hearted with grief. And we also know that the Jewish people have been here before. Our secret weapon against all forms of hatred has always been hope. It is the most persistent trait of our people. We hope for peace in times of violence – and we continue to act with love when we are surrounded by hate. We hope for sustenance when there is deprivation – and we feed people who are hungry as a way of nurturing our own souls. We hope against hope for a better world in times of darkness – and we turn our mourning into dancing.
To all of the friends of the Jewish community who have come here tonight to be with us in our time of mourning, thank you. It means the world to us. We look forward to a time when we can gather together to dance.