We heard about the shootings in Pittsburgh at our synagogue after services during kiddush. Not yet knowing details, and a bit in shock, we sang Shabbat songs with joy, belting out medieval poems to the tunes of the Bumblebee Tuna jingle and “Sloop John B.” That’s what we do when we gather to celebrate Shabbat: we pray, eat, laugh and sing.
On the way out of synagogue, our security guard filled us in a bit more. An Orangetown police car, he told us, would be staying at the synagogue all afternoon. It started to become more real.
After Havdalah, I turned on my phone and found a plethora of messages on Facebook from colleagues and friends, expressing a range of sorrow, outrage, and fear.
I reached out to a dear friend who lives in Squirrel Hill with support and concern. Though her family attends another synagogue, I know that everyone in that close-knit community knows each other. She appreciated my contacting her, and wrote back, “It could have been any synagogue anywhere in America.”
Over this past day, I have heard many versions of that sentiment. “They are my family members.” “I am connected to them all.” “What happens to one Jewish community happens to us all.”
What do Jewish people do with this overwhelming sense of connectedness? How do we respond to a tragedy when we live by the dictum:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
All of Israel is responsible one for the other.
We seek to be together as a community. As one of my congregants said to me, “We need to claim our seats after something like this happens.”
And once we are together, what are we meant to do?
How do we cope with the feelings of sorrow and helplessness when confronted with senseless hatred? We look hatred in the face and we answer it with love.
How do we grieve?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are three ascending levels of mourning: with tears — that is the lowest. With silence — that is higher. And with a song — that is the highest.”
It was perhaps a coincidence, but I believe it was Providence… the OJC had planned our singing extravaganza, Kol OJC, the Voice of OJC, for this morning. Amichai Margolis, our Music Director, had been rehearsing with our band for a month. We had videography and sound engineering in place. 175 of us, of all ages, came together to learn a song in five parts in under an hour. We began with a moment of silence and dedicated our singing to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
And once again, Providence played a hand in the songs that we sang: “Hineh mah tov,” How good and pleasant it is to sit, brothers and sisters together, and “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha,” Love your neighbor as yourself. The messages could not have been more meaningful or more timely.
Koolulam, the amazing Israel project which inspired us to organize Kol OJC, gathers thousands of singers. But we had just as much excitement and energy in our sanctuary as Koolulam gathers in any stadium throughout Israel. (Watch for our video around Chanukah time!)
When we feel afraid, sorrowful, and devastated by events over which we have no control, we have a choice about how we will respond. We can despair or we can take action.Today, at the OJC, we powerfully experienced the way that taking spiritual action can lift up a community.
May we go from strength to strength. May the community of Tree of Life Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue feel our solidarity and support in the face of their devastating loss. May the Squirrel Hill community, and Jewish people everywhere discover reservoirs of strength and optimism. May we remember that we are God’s partners in repairing our world. May we never give in to despair.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Over the past few days, I have been approached by several individuals who have expressed appreciation for my Rosh Hashanah message, sharing with me how the words I shared have taken hold in the rhythm of their daily lives. While I don’t have a full written text of my sermon, I do have some quotes that I can share. Leaving out the jokes and the stories, I offer you the essence of the message. I hope you will pass it along, and perhaps we can truly shape the world for the better in the year ahead.
From the movie 500 Days of Summer: “Most days of the year are unremarkable. They begin and they end with no lasting memory made in between. Most days have no impact on the course of a life.” What a sad and cynical way to approach a new day. What if we could make every day remarkable? What if each day had one lasting memory, one moment in which we affected someone else for the better? How would the course of our lives be changed?
Our patriarch Abraham committed a single act of kindness, welcoming three strangers into his tent, and in so doing he set a series of events into motion, changing the course of history. His ideology, built upon the performance of deeds that move the world deeper into relationship with the Creator of us all, is still the best ideology to bring about a victory of good over evil. The good deed changes the world; it latches onto our soul. Our acts of goodness reverberate through our souls for eternity.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action, rather than a leap of thought.” Indeed, our prayers are empty if they are not accompanied by action. And those actions need not be super-human, heroic or even self-sacrificing. They just need to be offered with the proper intention, and with the courage and pride to be performed as a Jew performing a mitzvah in the world. We wear the garb of our favorite sports heroes and teams (and I tip my hat to Derek Jeter), associating ourselves with others and with a cause. How much more so must we be prepared to identify ourselves and our mitzvahs as Jewish? Not that we must wear kippot in public as I do, but we must find the hat, the jewelry or the bumper magnet that will let people know whom we are and for what we stand.
Seventy-five years ago, our enemies labeled us with stars and the word “Jew” on our sleeves; the symbols identified us as vermin, disease, and the source of all of society’s ills. There are those who still attempt to cast the Jew in the same light, out of ignorance, fear and hatred. The battles against terror and evil around the world today will be fought with bombs and bullets, but the war is ultimately one of competing ideologies. And if we are to win this war, we must carry our Jewish identity with pride. We must let our deeds define us, as Jews and as human beings who seek the triumph of good.
Two weeks ago, we invited our synagogue’s neighborhood to join us in the building for some long-overdue introductions, refreshments and a tour. Our neighbors finally got to meet the people and see the space on the other side of the stained-glass wall that faces the street. It was an evening of breaking the ice, of tearing down barriers, of creating new relationships, of fighting back against the darkness. And it was a night that changed our small corner of the world. Call me an idealist, call me naïve; but I saw the world change before my eyes, and I felt it as I walked the streets of my neighborhood the next day. My world has been changed forever.
Especially in light of–and in spite of–the spread of anti-Semitism around the world and the ignorance that persists in our own back yards, we must wear our Jewish stars on our sleeves more visibly than ever. We must allow our deeds to define us as Jews more visibly than ever. We must, in this new year of 5775, fight back against the darkness with the light of our shining individual deeds that can transform our days, our lives and the world around us.
Shanah tovah and g’mar chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Craig Scheff