Response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: The radical act of turning towards each other instead of power.

As I lay awake at 3am still processing the horrific news of the shooting this morning at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 people were murdered by a white nationalist who screamed “All Jews must die!” before slaughtering those present at Shabbat morning services and a bris — a circumcision ceremony — of an eight-day-old baby boy… my heart aches. Deeply. In a way that feels like it pulls on our people’s generations of trauma, and re-opens wounds that are not my own but that are a part of me.

My mother has been working so hard lately. Especially because we were having guests for both Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch. So while she usually goes to synagogue every Saturday morning, she was still sleeping when I checked on her at 9:30am. She was too tired to go this morning. And I was so glad because the truth is that I was going to ask her not to go. Not after I heard the news.

For how many years must our people be persecuted?
For how many generations must our people be forced to
protect ourselves with prayer shawls, psalmic verses, and mystical spells?
When will we know relief and peace in our hearts?

Within a few minutes of hearing the news, my phone beeped. I had a text message from a colleague at work who I just met two weeks ago. “Hey Abby,” he wrote. “Just wanted you to know my heart is with you this morning. Just heard about the attack at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.” I was surprised by how meaningful his text was. That he would think to reach out to me.

In that moment, I realized that when I hear about yet another police shooting or unlawful and unwarranted killing of a black man or woman, I’m not always good about reaching out to my friends who may be as deeply affected by the news as I was about the shooting in a place of worship that is sacred to me. I need to be better about that.

And so I’m thinking now about allyship and being an accomplice and how the response to oppression musn’t be closing in on ourselves and focusing solely on our victimhood. Because it’s not a question of whether or not as Jews we are victims or privileged- we’re both. Rather, the question is, in moments when we more strongly feel the victim part of our intersectional identities, what will do? How will we act? Because victims have two choices. To remain insular and self-protect or to find power in joining with others who experience oppression. My belief is that as easy as it is to choose the former, the latter is what will be vital to our continuation as a people and the good of all people. So I hope this is what our community will choose: to reject insularity, victimhood, and hierarchical power and choose instead to align with other marginalized people, our black brothers and sisters, refugees, immigrants, LGBTQ community members, and others targeted by the same xenophobic nationalism surging through the cursed veins of the shooter.

How can we do this? By building connections not just through dialogue but through action. Getting to know people who don’t look like us, worship like us, or believe what we may believe. By becoming friends, hosting meals, sponsoring interfaith events, playing on sport teams together, developing projects with people outside of our communities, and most importantly not waiting for others to show up for us before we show up for them in their moments of need for support & solidarity. Overall, it’s expanding our circles of who we know and care about and love so that our worldview and our hearts’ ability to empathize expands.

This feels critical to me because it’s so hard to actually care about something until we ourselves, or people we love, experience it. This was spelled out for me directly in a Facebook post from a few weeks ago. A local politician’s son had been doored by a car and it had prompted the politician to admit he had never understood how important bike safety regulations were until his own son was impacted. An activist quoted the politician and lamented with righteous anger that it took his own son being involved for him to care about a situation. She asked what this means if we all can only viscerally care, let alone feel motivated enough to get involved, in issues that affect ourselves and our communities directly.

As I continue to process the news, I can’t help but think that the answer isn’t that we all have to experience tragedy for ourselves in order to take action — instead, we need to build community across lines of race and faith and identity so that when others hurt, our hearts hurt. When others bleed, we bleed. When others are suffering, we recall our own suffering and can feel theirs as our own. And double the joy as well- when they sing and dance, so do we!

And I know this works because I care about police brutality because some of the people I love most in this world are regularly followed by police when walking down the street, have been brutally assaulted, and unfairly detained. I care about immigration because a friend of mine had to leave the country before, thankfully, being able to get a visa at the last minute to return to her life here. I care about LGBTQ rights because of my cousin’s brave journey to transition before taking her own life. I care about homelessness and poverty because I choose to get to know people who live on the street. And I care about veterans because of my uncle’s story and the stories I now hear from veteran’s as I minister at their bedside that remind me of him.

These are not my personal struggles but they are Ours, of which I am a part.

And so, my fellow Jews, I hope that we respond to today’s tragedy not by becoming more insular or hoping to find salvation and protection in the powers that be. Let’s instead choose the radical act of turning towards each other. Because how much longer can those who support our current administration still be able to tell themselves that nothing our President has done or said has affected the increase in violence, hate crimes, and terrorism that we’ve seen by those who are his most ardent supporters? Rather, to understand once and for all that our power comes from the bonds we create and nurture with each other and other marginalized groups as we rise up together in the name of justice, equality, and peace.

May their names be a blessing and their families find comfort among the mourners of Zion… although this is a hope too infinite to even imagine at this tragic, broken, heartbreakingly finite moment.

Hospital chaplain, community organizer, writer. Shamelessly laughs at the same jokes over and over and believes there are gateways to holiness everywhere.