The only thing we have to fear

Joseph Aaron

We need to calm down.

Now I know it’s hard to have perspective when you are in mourning, when you are in shock. But some perspective is called for, before we all scare the hell out of ourselves, start taking all kinds of measures, holding all kinds of meetings, convince ourselves that things for us in America today are just like things have always been for Jews everywhere through all time.

Jews are already squandering the amazing opportunity we have to be Jews who are living in the time we are. While for literally the first time in Jewish history, Jews the world over are living in freedom and are able to live as Jews, while we have a powerful state of Israel, while American Jews are fully accepted in the most powerful country on earth, we still spend way too much time, way too much effort, way too much emotion, way too much money because we have convinced ourselves we are still a target, that the world is still out to get us, that we have to be on defense.

And so instead of seeing all the good for us in the world and making the most of it, we focus mostly on the bad and try to make the best of it, meaning we are not doing near enough to come up with creative ways to engage young Jews, ways to make Judaism appealing in this technological age, emphasize how great it is to be a Jew, enjoy the freedom and acceptance we have.

Most of Jewish life is made up of oys, not joys, of kvetching, not kvelling.

Since Pittsburgh, there has been a flood of stories about how we need to be afraid, very afraid. The Washington Post had a story by an American Jewish historian featuring the headline ‘American Jews always believed the U.S. was exceptional. We were wrong.’ She writes that she always believed that “America was an exceptional place for Jews,” but that she no longer believes that after Pittsburgh. Long time journalist Howard Fineman wrote in the New York Times that “the mass murder at Tree of Life has shaken my perhaps naïve faith in this country.” There have been many more just like that.

We all seem very ready to assume that America is no longer a safe place for Jews, that we were kidding ourselves to think it was, to think it was any different from every other place Jews have lived.

Well, we need to stop thinking like that. America is, in fact, a place unlike any Jews have ever lived in. That’s because America is different than any other country in history. This is a country where no one is more American than anyone else, and so everyone is just as American as everyone else. We all have come here from some other place and so all have an equal claim to being an American. In France, you are either a Frenchman or not. Same with Russia. Same with everywhere. In America you are an American no matter if your roots are in Argentina or Uganda or Poland, no matter what your religion or ethnicity. We are all Americans. And so all have an equal stake in this country being a land of tolerance and diversity and acceptance.

Beyond that, the phrase one has heard over and over since Pittsburgh is that it was the ‘worst mass killing of Jews in American history.’ Which it was, but think about what that means. 11 Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh. 11. And that is the worst mass killing of Jews in American history.

G-d forbid, I don’t mean for one second to minimize the heartbreaking loss of those 11. But is any other country where Jews have lived able to say the murder of 11 Jews was the worst killing of Jews in history? Think of the first and second intifadas in Israel and how many thousands of Jews were murdered in those. Think of the pogroms in Russia and the Inquisition in Spain and the persecutions in England and on and on, and how in each, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. Think of the worst mass killing of Jews in German history. Six million.

Indeed, we are about to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when Hitler’s forces and German citizens went on a rampage against Jewish businesses and synagogues. 91 Jews were murdered in just that one night, hundreds if you count those who died of their injuries later. 267 synagogues were destroyed, 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged, 30,000 Jews were arrested.

So when 11 Jews losing their lives is the worst day in American Jewish history, yes we should grieve, but we also need to keep perspective. In more than 240 years of American history, the worst mass killing of Jews resulted in 11 dead. Compare that to everywhere else in Jewish history and it tells you that yes America is different for Jews than anywhere else, and yes we are still incredibly safe here, incredibly accepted here.

And we saw just how accepted we are in the reaction to Pittsburgh, the support of government officials we received, the support of leaders of other faiths we received, the outpouring of media coverage condemning the massacre, showing caring for the Jewish community.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the largest newspaper serving the Pennsylvania city’s metropolitan area, printed a part of the kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, in Hebrew as its front-page headline, a tribute to the 11 Jews killed at the city’s Tree of Life synagogue.

David Shribner, the Post-Gazette’s executive editor, explained the decision to highlight the prayer in a note to readers. “if Pittsburgh’s passage in the past several days has shown anything, it is that these losses are all of ours, and that the solidarity of Pittsburgh’s grief is the face we have shown to those beyond the three rivers to the four corners of the earth.” Jodi Kantor, an investigative journalist for The New York Times, wrote that the headline is “The ultimate tribute to the victims. A statement that Jews belong.”

And then we had NBC Nightly News which offered its own tribute to the 11 victims of the massacre. At the end of its national broadcast, a cantor recited Kaddish, as the names and photos of the victims were shown on the screen. Anchor Lester Holt concluded the broadcast by saying, “May their memories be for blessing.”

When a major city’s major newspaper makes the headline at the top of its front page, the words, in Hebrew, of the mourner’s kaddish, when a major network makes the conclusion of its nightly news broadcast, a cantor chanting the kaddish, you see clearly and powerfully that yes, America is different for Jews, and yes we are safe, accepted, cared for in this country.

I could cite a thousand other examples that showed that. Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, wore special cleats emblazoned with the Star of David during a game. The cleats were white, black, red, and blue with yellow Stars of David at the top and the words “Stronger Than Hate” on the front.

A project called Stars of Hope put up wooden, five-pointed stars on a signpost in front of Tree of Life Congregation, each brightly colored and carrying messages of comfort and strength, which said “Love,” “Life,” “Chai.” A row of 11, in plain white with black lettering, carry the names of the victims.

“This is how you bring hope and healing back, to let them know that there’s good and there’s compassion and people care,” said Jeff Parness, the founder of Stars of Hope, who drove to Pittsburgh from his home in New York City following the shooting. “People want to do something tangible, but what do you do in a tragedy like this?” he asked. “You can’t bring people back. [But] you can hug them with love and you can express your compassion through art.”

More than $1 million in donations came into the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh to help the synagogue and the families of the victims. Included were large corporate contributions and large donations from foundations and private individuals, as well about a half million dollars in small donations from a wide range of people, groups and institutions. United Airlines provided free flights to the families of victims, and Giant Eagle, a local supermarket, gave away gift cards to purchase food for the shivas. The accounting firm Deloitte is providing free tax services and estate planning to the families. Muslim groups in Pittsburgh raised more than $150,000 to cover funeral costs.

A refugee from Iran raised over $600,000 for the Tree of Life synagogue. The day after the massacre, Shay Khatiri, 29, started an online fundraiser and within 24 hours, he had raised over $640,000, far exceeding his expectations. “I thought to myself, ‘Worst comes to worst, it will raise like $500.’ Which is better than nothing but it’s a little above that now.” Khatiri said that seeing the donations come in has inspired him. “Everyone talks about how divided we are. But in such a tragic moment, Americans are always powerful and indivisible in trauma.”

I could go on but the point is that it’s important that Jews not overreact to Pittsburgh, not decide this country is just like every other country, that nothing has changed for Jews, that we are not safe here, that everyone is out to get us here.

And most important of all is that we hold on to our Jewish values, be the open, loving people we are meant to be and not allow ourselves to become hardened by fear.

Perhaps the most inspiring, most Jewish story to come out of Pittsburgh is the fact that Robert Bowers, the suspect who yelled “I want to kill all the Jews” during his rampage, was treated by Jewish doctors and nurses for injuries he sustained in the shooting.

At least three of the doctors and nurses who treated him when he arrived at Allegheny General Hospital were Jewish, hospital president Dr. Jeffrey Cohen said. Cohen himself is a member of Tree of Life Congregation. Cohen said the emergency room doctor and the registered nurse who first attended to Bowers were Jewish. The nurse, whose father is a rabbi, broke down in tears shortly after treating Bowers, Cohen said, adding “I told him how proud I was.” Cohen visited Bowers and asked him if he was in pain.

We have much to learn from the example of these doctors and nurses. They had every reason to take revenge on their patient, be cruel to their patient, either refuse to treat him or take joy in mistreating him. But no, they were Jews, Jews who showed their strength, Jews who did not let fear or hate get the best of them, Jews who stayed true to Judaism and the values it holds most dear.

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