Over the past week, many people have reached out to express various sentiments in the aftermath of the barbaric murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and to ask how I am coping with this tragedy. I was, and still am, deeply shaken by this noxious act of anti-Semitism, and it became even more chilling for me when my 12-year-old daughter, who is going to have her Bat Mitzvah next year, said to me, “I just want to enjoy my Bat Mitzvah; what if one of those people come?” It should be unthinkable that a 12-year-old girl in the United States in 2018 is worried about being attacked on her Bat Mitzvah (or any other day) simply because she is Jewish (or because of her race/ethnicity/religion/gender). Yet, even as a child, I remember going to high holiday services in NY under police protection. Things have not changed, as the same rings true today.
In 1790, George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, that “the Government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction” and “the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, [should] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Sadly, nearly 230 years later, President Washington’s words have not come to fruition. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise for years, with nearly 2,000 incidents in 2017 alone in the United States (a 57 percent increase from 2016). The number of incidents in schools and on college campuses nearly doubled for the second year in a row and, according to the FBI, approximately 53 percent of faith-based hate crimes target Jews. I do not find it coincidental that the surge in anti-Semitism has coincided with a shocking level of tolerance for anti-Semitic rhetoric in our political discourse – from both the right and the left (kudos to Chris Cuomo for being the only person I have seen on TV to call out people on both sides for tolerating anti-Semitism) – as well as from ordinary citizens in private, daily life. Yet, as we approach the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9), this is where we find ourselves as a nation.
Beyond the anti-Semitism, we have likewise sadly seen a disturbing increase in racism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. Overshadowed by the events at the Tree of Life Synagogue, for example, was the murder of two black people in Kentucky, seemingly because of their skin color. Also, by way of example, the number of attacks on Muslims in 2017 for the first time exceeded the number of attacks that occurred in 2001.
Several years ago, when my best friend and I were discussing bullying in school, he said to me something along the lines of, “I hope my kids not only do not join in when other kids are getting bullied, I hope they do not sit by idly, either, and instead they do the right thing and speak out against the bad behavior.” While that seems like a reasonable, common sense goal for our children, today they are not the only ones who fail to speak up in the face of hateful rhetoric: adults are failing to do so, too. For that reason, I take great comfort from the following:
The irony of these brutal attacks by “nationalists” is that they claim to be preserving the American way when, in reality, acts of intolerance fly in the face of what our Founding Fathers aspired for this country. The United States of America was founded on the principle of freedom of religion and equality for all (thankfully, we evolved past the ignominious beginning when skin color and gender were once exempted from the principle of equality).
To fulfill the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam (“Repair the World”), I challenge each of you to follow the lead of the good people I describe above, fulfill my friend’s goal for our children, answer my daughter’s question about her security in America, fulfill President Washington’s promise, and do the American/patriotic thing – actively promote the American ideal of tolerance and freedom for all, rather than make it a hollow slogan, and speak out against all forms of bigotry, whether it is anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, or any other form of hate. One of the lessons from the Holocaust is that remaining silent in the face of bigotry allows bigotry to take hold, fester, and become “acceptable” or the “norm”, which dehumanizes the “other” group and opens the door for murderous rampages. We cannot allow that to happen.
Lastly, I want to share a poem by Zev Steinberg, which was written about the boy whose Bris was supposed to take place at the Tree of Life Synagogue on the morning of the murders on October 27 (a Bris is the Jewish ceremony where a boy is circumcised when he is 8 days old and given his Hebrew name). My Rabbi read this poem at Shabbat services this past Saturday. I found it very moving and meaningful. Hopefully, it helps bring comfort to you and further inspires you to speak out against bigotry before it results in death.
Little boy, what’s your name – do you have one?
Sweet baby, just eight days, what should we call you?
I have heard the sacred circumcision postponed for jaundiced yellow, but never before for bloodshed red.
Is your name Shalom? We long for peace in this troubled world. I hope you are Shalom.
Is your name Nachum? Oh, how we need to be comforted in our grief. I hope you are Nachum.
Is your name Raphael? Our broken hearts and bleeding souls need healing. I hope you are Raphael.
You should have been carried high into the congregation on Shabbat morning – past from loving hands to loving hands – on a cushioned pillow to receive your Jewish name.
Instead your elders fell and were carried out on stretchers in plastic bags. Their names on tags.
Is your name Moshe? Our unbearable anguish and rage demands justice. I hope you are Moshe.
Is your name Ariel? We need the ferocious strength of lions to protect our people. I hope you are Ariel.
Is your name Barak? We need courageous warriors to vanquish our enemies. I hope you are Barak.
The blood on Shabbat morning was supposed to be covenantal not sacrilegious, sacramental not sacrificial, sacred not unholy. The tears were supposed to be of boundless joy not bottomless sorrow.
The cries were supposed to be “mazel tov” not the mourner’s kaddish.
Is your name Simcha? We need an end to sadness by bringing joy into our world. I hope you are Simcha.
Is your name Yaron? We need an end to mourning by bringing song into our lives. I hope you are Yaron.
Is your name Matan? We need the gift of children who will bring a better tomorrow. I hope you are Matan.
So little boy, what’s your name? Take them all if you will. Take a thousand names. Be peace and Comfort and Healing. Be Justice and Strength and Courage. Be Joy and Song and a Gift to the world.
Be every good name and every good thing.
And, Sweet baby, take one more name if you will – because I hope you will be blessed with a long, blissful, beautiful and meaningful life…
I hope you are Chaim.
The author is a prominent Maryland attorney.