Loving as a Community in Times of Grief

This past Shabbat I was feeling sense of elation as I started to walk out of the Sanctuary with our Bar Mitzvah, Dylan. I told him how proud I was of him and he beamed with pride. His friends ran into hug him and tell him that he did awesome. As the community entered the social hall, one person, then the next, came over and whispered in my ear that there had been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. I tried to hide my pain, sadness, and fear behind a comforting smile so that Dylan could continue to celebrate his coming of age – assuming the privileges and responsibilities of becoming a Jewish adult. I didn’t want him or any other child to feel unsafe within our walls or our community that morning.

I slowly snuck away to my office, turned on my computer and started to read the news. By then four people were confirmed dead. I clicked open Microsoft Word and I started to write the letter that I sent that afternoon to our congregation. By the time I sent it to Merav, she called to tell me that the death toll was now at 11 and that we needed to update the letter.

I headed home to hold Maggie and Jenny close in my arms.

As I said in my letter, I am sad, I am horrified, I am scared, but I am not shocked. Since I became a rabbi every time I ascend the bima I have to conduct a threat assessment. Each Shabbat, I look out at the faces of our community and I see people who come to commune with God, who come to grieve, who come to celebrate, and who come to be with others. I also see new faces, sometimes people unsure of what they will encounter in prayer. If time permits I walk over and introduce myself. This is not merely a nice gesture; this is a commandment. As Dylan taught us as he became Bar Mitzvah, when our father Abraham saw three strangers walking outside of his camp, he ran to greet them, invited them inside and insisted on providing food and comfort.

As I rush to fulfill this commandment, however, when I greet people I do not know, I must also assess if they are here out of love or hate. Security is always something that our synagogue leadership, professional and lay, think about on a daily basis. I have been working with Merav and our president Sarah to assess our security procedures to ensure that we are doing what we can to keep people safe and secure in our building. We have created these policies through a partnership with the Hamden PD, the FBI and department of Homeland Security and we review them each year. We must balance creating a warm and welcoming environment for all people who come here with love, while taking concrete steps to keep us safe from those who hate. Love and hate are powerful emotions. Love can bring us together, while hate tears us apart. Jews know both all too well.

Here at CMI we know what it means to love the neighbor and stranger. We gather as a community, we visit people who are sick in our community, we celebrate as a community, and we grieve as a community. During my interview weekend I had the honor of attending Alan Lakin’s funeral, may his memory be for a blessing. I witnessed our sanctuary fill up with grieving hearts. More than any conversation could teach me, I saw a community filled with love for each other. We honor Alan’s legacy by coming together to support each other tonight. Throughout Jewish history we have always felt love from outside as well. During the Holocaust righteous partisans risked their lives and the lives of their families to save the lives of even just one Jewish soul. This week we are grateful for the love and support of the greater faith community here in New Haven who have reached out, shown up, and declared their love for their Jewish brothers and sisters. I know some of you came to be with us tonight – thank you.

Yet as part of klal yisrael, the global Jewish community, we also know what it means to be hated by others because of our faith. For millennia people have marginalized and scapegoated Jews for their own problems. Jews suffered throughout our 2000 years in the diaspora. We suffered through the destruction of the Temple, we suffered through the Crusades of Europe and the Pogroms of Russia, we suffered through the expulsion from Spain, and we suffered through the Holocaust. We continually suffer through anti-Semitic acts both small and large. Only last week I was speaking with a parent who told me that in 2018 her children have been the target of anti-Semitic jokes and bullying at school

Last Shabbat afternoon as the news continued to unfold, I got in my car and drove to Long Island to officiate at a wedding for someone who grew up here at CMI. I arrived with confusion in my heart – I was so happy and excited for this couple and their families and at the same time I was sick with grief. Soon I was introduced to the grandmothers, one of whom pulled me aside and quickly pulled up her sleeve to show me her numbers. “I am a survivor,” she declared. She reminded me that the tallit under which her grandson was about to stand was not an ordinary tallit.

During Kristallnacht, which we’ll remember the 80th anniversary next Friday, her late husband ran into a burning building in Cologne and rescued that tallit from a burning synagogue. The couple chose to use this particular tallit as their chuppah. As I went to set up the wine and glass as I usually do, I also paused under the tallit. I prayed – God, why? Why do people hate Jews? Why is there so much hatred in our world, in our country, in 2018?

There is a lot of hate in our country at the moment. Hate that has existed for a long time underground but that has been “given permission” to re-emerge, proud and emboldened by a United States President who declared that people chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville included some fine people. Fine people do not chant hateful rhetoric, do not engage in acts of anti-Semitism, and do not champion hate over love. Fine people love their neighbors. Fine people run like Abraham to greet the stranger, rather than build walls to keep them out. Fine people see other people, black, white, Asian, American, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian and Muslim as all being created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. We will not let hate erode our country and we will not let hate prevent us from praying together.

Tonight I see so many images of God looking back and me. All week I have looked into your eyes and seen sparks of the divine. In your eyes I have also seen pain, grief and fear, emotions I feel as well. Tonight we hold each other as we mourn for those killed in Pittsburgh. Tonight we do what we do best as Jews – we gather as the loving community that drew me to CMI one year ago. We know that as long as we keep love in our hearts, we will find light together. Dr. King taught us taught us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[1]” As we sing our prayers tonight, we respond to hate with love and we bring light into our world.

In addition to prayer and community engagement, we can continue to bring light into our world through action. First we will vote. We will use the most powerful tool we have in our arsenal to make a difference in our world. We will vote for whichever candidates and issues we feel best reflect our core Jewish values of loving the neighbor and loving stranger. We can take action to prevent people from accessing assault rifles so powerful that the one used in Pittsburgh killed not only unarmed, innocent people, but three armed and well trained police officers. We must work together with the police, politicians and gun manufacturers to reduce gun violence in our community including reducing access to military-grade weapons. I am proud that our congregation works with CONECT and the Do Not Stand Idly by campaign to make this effort a reality.

We can also bring light into our world by loving the stranger. Shortly before entering the Tree of Life synagogue, the assailant, and I intentionally do not use his name because I his name will not be part of the list of names we will remember, posted on social media that his attack was motivated by HIAS. HIAS, which originally stood for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and was founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. They helped Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, and those from Cuba, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Iran. Today HIAS works to help settle refugees regardless of religious background and helps people facing persecution throughout the world find freedom and peace.

Over the past several years Mishkan Israel, along with four other congregations in New Haven have been doing our part to help settle refugees – people who successfully navigated the legal immigration process and have arrived safely to New Haven with the support of the US Government. We formed JCARR, the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement. All five congregations have resolved that in memory and honor of those killed we will raise money for JCARR so that we can continue to help those who seek refuge in our community. I hope that you will consider making a contribution – you can donate through Temple Emanuel and details will be in the enews next week. We will keep our eternal flame burning brightly just as Jews have done time and again throughout history.

Our Torah portion this week seems appropriate, opening with the death of our matriarch Sarah. “Sarah’s lifetime…came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriat-arba in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to lament her death.[2]” Tonight we mourn those who died because they were Jewish. We also mourn for our children, whose innocence is slowly eroded before their time. When Dylan signed his b’nai mitzvah certificate, I asked him if he was willing and able to accept the privileges and responsibilities of becoming a Jewish adult. We lament the fact that our children must bear the responsibility that others might hate us only because we are Jews.

I pray that through love, light and action we can build a world in which our children will only know peace and wholeness.

Amen.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr. (1967). Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?. p. 67.

[2] Gen. 23:1-2