Yesterday I sent the following message to faculty, students and staff at Wesleyan.
As I’ve done too many times before, I write to the campus now to express grief and anger in the wake of a terrorist attack. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, a well-armed anti-Semite shattered the lives of individuals, families and a community. The number of anti-Semitic acts has been increasing across the country, and, like many Jews, I’ve observed with alarm the mounting use of hate-filled rhetoric. In a country with such easy access to weapons of mass killing, this kind of talk can ignite murderous acts. This is, apparently, what happened in Pittsburgh.
I learned of the attack yesterday when I returned from a study group on the Hebrew Bible. We were wrestling with the relation of hospitality and innocence, with welcoming strangers and making arguments for justice. In Pittsburgh, Jews were gathered to celebrate the naming of a baby when the murderer began shooting, crying out anti-Semitic slurs. Slurs, we are used to. The killer, according to reports in the press, had 21 guns legally registered under his name. He used more than one of them in the killing spree.
Our Middletown synagogue, Temple Adath Israel, is organizing a vigil and candle lighting tonight on the South Green (the park across from Mondo Pizza) at 7pm. Please consider attending to stand together against hate crimes.
Now is a time for grieving, for attentiveness and care. It is also a time to work for hospitality and justice. May we find them in our own lives, and, in remembrance of those murdered in Pittsburgh, work in solidarity to create a more hospitable and just country, and a more hospitable and just world. As we say in my tradition, this would help make their memory a blessing.
This week the Washington Post published my reflections on this sad event:
Whenever I’m not busy with campus duties, I go to my shul on Saturday mornings to study Torah. About 15 or so of us gather to work our way through the Hebrew Bible, week by week, from the story of creation in Genesis, to the death of Moses in Deuteronomy. We are now early in Genesis, Vayeira, the chapters that describe a crucial part of Abraham and Sarah’s journey, including the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fates of Ishmael and Isaac.
When I returned to the Wesleyan campus after Saturday’s study session, I heard the news from Pittsburgh: A synagogue was attacked by a heavily armed anti-Semite, and there were fatalities. I know the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in that city, and I’ve been to my share of baby-naming ceremonies like the one that was taking place when the killer arrived. Like most Jews, I am also acquainted with hate-filled anti-Semites.
Ever since I was a child, I have had to deal with people who just didn’t like Jews, and some who were consumed with distrust and malice. Today one finds these views often disguised with more palatable ideologies. But like many Jews, I’ve gotten used to this ordinary nastiness.
The problem for me has never been the “hate” from some other people. Jews have long had to deal with that. The problem was their potential for violence, their access to weapons that could destroy lives. This was the deadly, combustible combination that erupted in Pittsburgh.
In the section of the Torah we studied this past Saturday, Abraham sees travelers approaching and prepares to greet them with kindness and generosity. They might, we are told, be angels. Later in the text, he is wary when journeying among strangers in the desert, unsure of their moral codes and whether he would be safe among them. Throughout these chapters of Genesis, we are asked to consider the relation of hospitality and foreignness, of moral codes and the wilderness. Who can one count on, and whom should one be afraid of?
The killer in Pittsburgh appears to have been particularly enraged by Jewish help for immigrants, especially the group HIAS, with its mission to “welcome the stranger [and] protect the refugee.” This is rage stoked by President Trump and his allies when they talk of the “globalist forces” behind the caravan of Latin American refugees heading north toward the United States. The demonization of outsiders has been normalized at the highest levels of government and a popular news outlet in the country, and it is sometimes flavored with anti-Semitic ingredients.
This demonization was on our minds this week in our study group as we “wrestled” with the relation of hospitality and innocence, with welcoming strangers and making arguments for justice. In Pittsburgh, Jews were gathered to celebrate the birth of a child when the murderer began shooting, crying out his anti-Semitic slurs. We are used to slurs. The killer, according to reports in the media, had 21 guns legally registered under his name. He used more than one of them in the killing spree.
I wrote Sunday morning to faculty, staff and students at Wesleyan to express my sorrow, my dismay and my anger. There was an evening vigil in Middletown, Conn., and a group of our students sang a traditional song of peace in a candlelit town square filled with hundreds of neighbors: “May the one who makes peace in the heavens, bring peace to us all.”
We must do our part to create this peace, reaching across our everyday political and cultural divisions. Professors and administrators, students and staff, must join to push back against bigotry and violence, no matter what its source.
Now, to be sure, is a time for grieving, for attentiveness and care. But it is also a time to work, to work with compassionate solidarity, for hospitality and justice. A meaningful education helps us find these qualities in our own lives, and, in remembrance of those murdered in Pittsburgh, it should empower us to create a more hospitable and just country.
As we say in my tradition, this would help make their memory a blessing.