The lessons of Poway

Joseph Aaron

Please please can we make what happened in Poway, California about Lori Gilbert-Kaye and not about John Earnest.

Now you may not even realize that John Earnest is the name of the butcher who walked into the shul near San Diego and began shooting. And you probably are well aware that Lori is the name of the incredibly brave woman who put herself between the shooter and the shul’s rabbi, thus saving his life.

But while we are more aware of Lori than of Earnest, fact is that what we have done, as we always do, is focus much more on the barbarous act of murder than we do on the uplifting act of selflessness.

Oh sure we are all touched and grieved by Lori’s death, but the truth is we abet Earnest’s evil by not reacting as we should. He wanted to scare us and he did. He wanted us to feel hated and we do.

Of course, we are scared, of course each and every one of us who goes to synagogue or temple on Shabbat will for quite some time have a sense of dread while walking in and being there. It is only natural that this has shaken us. That indeed is precisely the purpose and insidious power of terrorism, that one act in one place sows fear in all in all other places.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be scared and I’m not saying we shouldn’t take proper precautions and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do things to make our synagogues safer. Of course we should. But we also need not to give in to darkness, not to let evil triumph, not to change who we are. We need to remember that we continue to be Jews who live in the best era for Jews in a very long time, are Jews who live in a time when we are more accepted, more respected, more secure than ever in our history.

As it happens, I was having lunch with some old friends in Jerusalem on the very day of the shooting, of which we were unaware. Someone at the table asked me if in light of some of the things that have taken place the last year or so, the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the attacks on Jews in many places in Europe, if I regretted writing, as I have often done the last few years, that anti-Semitism is no longer a real factor in the lives of the vast majority of Jews.

I had to think about that. I have always said that yes, there will always be anti-Semitism, yes, there will always be people who say hurtful and stupid and hateful things about Jews, there will always be people who do harmful and hateful things to Jews. But I have also said that as a real factor in the everyday lives of the Jewish people that anti-Semitism is not something we have to contend with.

Yes, in some ways it’s harder to say that now. After Pittsburgh, after Poway, it sure doesn’t feel like that. It feels like anti-Semitism is very much a factor. But in thinking about my friend’s question, especially after I learned later that night about Poway, I still contend that the anti-Semitism that Jews have had to deal with through much of Jewish history is no longer something Jews today have to deal with. Not even close. There are no pogroms, no expulsions, no exterminations, no government sanctioned persecutions.

Before you stomp off in a huff, please hear me out. Fact is that today we have a strong and powerful Jewish state, a Jewish state that has diplomatic relations with every important country on earth, indeed with almost every country on earth. And while yes, Hamas and Hezbollah, Abbas and the ayatollah say a lot of ugly things about us, and occasionally do murderous things to us, they in no way truly threaten us. Yes, from time to time, terrorism occurs in Israel, but not that often anymore. Yes, when it does occur, it is heartbreaking, seeing innocent Jewish lives lost. But the fact is that if you ask the average Israeli, they will tell you they feel pretty safe, know they have a mighty army to protect them. Indeed, their sense of feeling secure is precisely why Bibi got reelected to yet another term.

And the fact is that today American Jews have a position in this society like nothing ever before seen in Jewish history. We may not notice anymore, but it always strikes me how amazing it is that you had politicians and TV stations all making a point of wishing “Happy Passover, Happy Easter.” We are but six million in this country, Christians are more than 240 million and yet our holiday always gets mentioned right along with theirs. It might seem trivial but it is not.

I think before we all become certain that it is 1939 for Jews all over again, we consider but a few things among thousands of things I could mention. Things like the fact that the German state of Saxony will be introducing a basic course in Judaism to its public schools. The course will join the available required courses in other religions such as Catholicism and Protestantism. Other German states already have introduced the course in Judaism, which is open to students of any background. Children of other faiths learning about Judaism with Jewish students  “can contribute to a better understanding” of the religion, said the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Less than 80 years ago, Germany was slaughtering Jews by the millions. Now it is teaching Judaism in its public schools. That should matter to us.

Consider that the only country in the world besides Israel to ever have a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister at the same time is Ukraine which just elected a Jew to be its head of state.

Anyone who knows anything about Ukraine’s long history of anti-Semitism has to be amazed at that fact. No, it doesn’t mean anti-Semitism has disappeared from Ukraine, but it does say something that the country has a Jew as its president and a Jew as its prime minister.

Getting back to Poway, consider this. Two days after the shooting, the United Nations Security Council held a special session on the Middle East, focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the request of Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, the Council opened the debate with a moment of silence in memory of Lori Kaye.

Yes, the United Nations Security Council held a moment of silence in memory of the victim of the Poway shooting. No, that does not mean the UN loves Israel or treats Israel fairly but it does say something that the Security Council held a moment of silence for what took place at the shul near San Diego.

Look, I know there will be some reading this who will say how naïve I am, how self-hating I am, how delusional I am. In Jewish life it always safer to make out that all is horrible, that everyone is out to get us, that we are thisclose to being destroyed, that another Holocaust is just around the corner.

And I realize that after something like Poway it can feel like that. Which is precisely why we not only have to keep some perspective about how things truly are for us today, but we also need to give less power to John Earnest and his crazed actions and much more to the example set for us by Lori Kaye.

By all accounts, Lori Kaye was a great Jew, a giving Jew, someone who showed her caring for all Jews, was kind to all Jews, welcoming to all Jews, someone who amazingly sacrificed her life to save the life of her rabbi, of another Jew. She should inspire us, remind us of the kind of Jew we can and should be.

It was interesting to me that the Poway shooting took place exactly six months to the day after the Pittsburgh shooting. What I found telling, what lesson I took from that is the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is Conservative, progressive and egalitarian, while Poway is a Chabad shul, part of the Orthodox Lubavitch movement.

I very much doubt the shooter in either case cared for a second what denomination each synagogue was. Each just wanted to kill Jews, and so went to a synagogue on Shabbat to do so. Didn’t matter which synagogue, whatever was closest to where he lived would do.

But I think there’s a message in there for all of us. Now for some Jews the message will be that the world hates all Jews, doesn’t care if we are Conservative, Reform or Orthodox, they just want to kill us. Or we can use it a lesson to ourselves that we need to stop with all the Jewish disunity, all the Jewish finger pointing, all the Jewish name calling, all the we’re better Jews than you, and recognize that we are all Jews, no matter what shul we pray at, to what denomination we belong to. We are all Jews, first and foremost, and there is no truth more important.

We need to learn to come together and we need to learn to not just come together to mourn, not just share fear and anger but rather share a sense of common peoplehood and common purpose.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned from Poway. I just hope we learn the right ones. Not become more sure everyone hates us, not become more frightened, feel more victimized, more alone.

It might also be nice if we recognize that while he may have moved the embassy to Jerusalem that Trump’s rhetoric, his calling people names, demonizing people, attacking people, saying there are “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, something he reiterated just the day before the Poway shooting, that his administration’s failure to acknowledge, let alone deal with white supremacy, a threat he poo-poohed just two days after Poway, have done much to give the crazy white supremacists out there a sense that if the president of the United States can talk so hatefully, can accuse Robert Mueller of engineering a coup, call the men and woman of the FBI ‘scum,’ that that allows them to feel more free to come out of their holes and turn the sick things in their heads into sick actions. No less than grand wizard David Duke has said Trump’s words and behavior have given them encouragement.

I know, accuse me of blaming Trump for everything. But how many American synagogue mass shootings took place before this administration? The answer is none.

But for now, forget Trump. Let’s please try to remember the big picture of how good things are for Jews, let’s please use Poway as a reminder to love and respect all Jews. Let’s please try to remember, as a tribute to Lori Kaye, how better off we are when we are united as one people, who have their differences but who are always brothers and sisters.

3 Comments on "The lessons of Poway"

  1. Patricia McMillen | May 3, 2019 at 2:54 am | Reply

    Again, I’m very grateful for this column, and impressed by your courage as a journalist. Thank you Chicago Jewish News!

  2. Good lord. I know its hard to grasp but this isn’t Trumps fault. The chabad rabbi in poway seemed to be able to ascertain that. Why can’t you

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