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Laziness is no longer an option: responding to Pittsburgh

A photograph of the Etz Chaim community building in Pittsburgh

By Ben Lewis, RSY-Netzer movement worker 2015/16 and Communications Consultant for Reform Judaism

I don’t usually go to synagogue on a Saturday morning – the temptation of laziness tends to keep me more often in bed when the service is starting. For some reason, last week I felt the urge to be there for the Shabbat morning service – some kind of inspiration. The sun was shining as I walked and I arrived at a synagogue filled with both people and energy, and just starting its prayers. There was a Bar Mitzvah, and the now fully-fledged member of the community delivered beautiful divrei torah (words of Torah) about how his Reform Jewish upbringing had helped him to see inequality in the world and had inspired him to take action to promote the rights of all people.

Only one hour after arriving home, I was reading the news through my tears: a mass shooting at a Shabbat morning service in Pittsburgh. 11 murdered as they prayed.

What really hit home was seeing the attacker’s social media posts. In one of his hate-filled tweets, he was shouting abuse at a photo of Jews protesting in support of refugees. An incredibly familiar item of clothing caught the attention of many of my friends – a green, Netzer, Reform Zionist youth movement shirt. This photo was from Australia and included members of Netzer Australia who had recently been in the UK leading in our youth movement, RSY-Netzer. It was like looking in a mirror. At the height of the interest in the refugee crisis in Europe, many Reform young adults attended a march in support of refugees here in London. We held signs bearing the same slogans. A number wore the same unmistakable shade of green – including me.

This terrorist – let’s not be afraid to call him what he is – was clear that he wasn’t just interested in attacking the community in Pittsburgh. His primary objective was to strike any of us, anywhere, who dare to enact the values of our tradition: to welcome the stranger; to pursue justice; to love our neighbour as ourselves. The communities occupying that particular building in Pittsburgh were his local shining example of these morals in action. They were fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah – becoming a light to the nations. We are rightly proud that so many Jewish communities across the world are such beacons, illuminating their communities and societies with their love and generosity. Unfortunately, shining out such a light will always draw the attention of those who aim to make the world darker.

It is tempting to say: “if this attacker had been in the UK and not Pittsburgh, this could have been us”. This statement isn’t false, but it misses the more terrifying truth: there are already people with the same beliefs as this attacker in the UK – and almost anywhere else where Jews live. It isn’t hard to find people who post exactly the same messages to social media that this man posted before he committed this atrocity. And it isn’t just our community that faces these threats. Hateful abuse and threats of violence have become normalised against public figures; against ethnic and religious minority groups and against people holding specific political perspectives. Last week not only included the Pittsburgh shooting, but bomb threats aimed at political figures and two more people murdered by a white supremacist. Even within our community, this past summer showed us the British Jewish community has just the same capacity as any other for indulging in this incitement. As a society, we have almost deluded ourselves into thinking this is both normal and that these words have no consequences. We claim to be shocked when those threats turn into real violence.

We should be devastated but, as a society, we have no right to act surprised when we do nothing to combat this hate.

The only way we defeat darkness is with more light. The only way we overcome those who want to extinguish our Jewish values and tradition is by defiantly holding ever closer to our beliefs and making them real in the world. Some of those murdered in Pittsburgh were survivors of the Shoah. Their attendance at synagogue over the decades since has been 70-plus years of defiance of the Nazis who did all they could to wipe them out. We sanctify the memory of those who were murdered by following their example: continuing to defy those who spread hate in our times, by pushing back against the normalisation of abuse, unflinchingly calling out injustice and repairing where our societal discourse has become broken.

If there is one realisation I have made this week, it is that my laziness is no longer an option. Indifference and inaction are what creates space and gives permission for those who want to make the world a hateful place. We have to fill up the world with love, compassion and justice and leave them no room. We were created in the image of God, to bring holiness into the world – but, as a poem by Aaron Zeitlin teaches us:

If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don’t cry out,

If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.

We can’t allow ourselves to be created in vain. We can’t allow those who have been murdered to have been lost in vain. This Shabbat, I will again be in my synagogue. Together – our community, with communities everywhere – we will start to make a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of Peace, a reality in the world.

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