Columbine... Sandy Hook... Parkland... Sutherland Springs, Texas... Orlando... Las Vegas... and now Pittsburgh. Yesterday was another terrible day for all Americans. More individuals – who gathered together, to study and learn, to celebrate, to worship – have lost their lives due to senseless hatred and the proliferation of guns in our society.
Yesterday was especially terrible for us as Jews, who as the Talmud says, “are responsible for one another... Kol Yisroel Averim Zeh Lazeh.” Our hearts break for our sisters and brothers at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. Let us pray for the comfort of the bereaved and the healing of the injured. Let us give tzedakah in their names, and let us not be driven in fear from our synagogues.
Yesterday’s tragic events are particularly resonant to me. I am a Pennsylvania boy. My three sisters are all graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. One sister lives a half a mile from Tree of Life, and my nephews attended pre-school at the synagogue. As information on the victims begins to become known, I am hearing some of the details, and they are very close to home: my brother-in-law’s physician; my Philadelphia sister’s friend’s aunt’s friend’s mother. I am learning that I have friends who grew up at Tree of Life.
I am reminded of the history of Jews in America... my history. My hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is the 17th oldest Jewish community in America and Canada, dating back to the early 1850s. The synagogue building of Temple B’nai B’rith was dedicated in 1851, joining the five established Christian churches in the city of 3000 residents. According to the New York-based Jewish periodical The Occident, Christian residents of Wilkes-Barre had contributed about $1000 (about $35,000 today) to the synagogue building fund, on condition that the original plans for a “frame building” be changed in favor of “a more substantial structure.”
The history of Jews in America is not anti-semitism. It is the Christian immigrants of Wilkes-Barre – first English, followed by Poles, Magyars, Irish, Italians, and Slovaks – who supported and invested in the German Jews, and welcomed us to join them in the American experiment. I hope and pray that we Americans can return to our founding principles... speedily in our days... so that our country truly becomes a place that George Washington envisioned when he wrote his famous letter to the Newport Jewish community in 1790, quoting the Hebrew prophet Micah... a place where “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Until then, let us remember the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, "The world is a very narrow bridge and so the most essential thing is not to be afraid.”
With wishes for comfort and strength,
Rabbi Joel Shaiman