Sermon by Rabbi Middleton following the Pittsburgh Shootings

Chaye Sarah – In response to the Pittsburgh Murders


It was arresting and rather unsettling to see it in such large, bold letters splashed out on the Front Page of a mainstream local Newspaper: … an entire Hebrew sentence (or rather, an Aramaic sentence for the pedantics among us). A sentence we all know so well … On the Front Page of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette it read in big, bold letters: Yitgadal, v’yitkadash sheme rabbah …

Who would have thought that there would be a time in which there was a need for any mainstream American newspaper to write the opening words of the mourner’s kaddish in bold letters on its front page as a sign of condolence, solidarity and outrage against a crime committed against Jews simply because they are Jews?

Before last week, no one would have thought this possible in the USA. Before last week Reform Jews all over the world would associate the name Pittsburgh with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 in which the American Reform Movement formulated its core principles.

Before last week, Jews in America would worship in synagogues without security. Who needs security when you feel at home and safe and accepted? As one Pittsburgh Jewish student, 15-year-old Sophia Levin, declared in front of a crowd of people attending a vigil last Saturday night: “I am a different Jew today than I was yesterday …. Yesterday being Jewish was just being a part of the Jewish community. Hearing about anti-Semitic [events] was something you heard about otherplaces. But this is Squirrel Hill, and that didn’t affect us here” (BBC news).

It is that aspect of the shooting in Pittsburgh which has shocked, not only Jews in America, but all of us. We are shocked not because it made us realise that the oldest hate – Antisemitism – is still alive and real and comes in many guises. After all, we British Jews, have encountered it so many times this year in political rhetoric at the highest levels, disguised as legitimate criticism of Israel’s politics.

And it is not only Anti-Semitic rhetoric that we have witnessed over the years, there have been numerous other deadly attacks on synagogues, schools and Jewish shops; we remembers the gun attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, the gun attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, the attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, and the attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen in 2015. And each time such an attack takes place, we all feel it, because each and every victim could have been us. And because we believe, we feel, that all Jews are connected kol Yisrael ar’vim ze-bazeh (and we feel each other’s pain).

And yet, this was different, because all these other attacks took place, in Europe… and there we are – somehow, accustomed to it. Growing up in the Netherlands, I was constantly aware of the unspoken fear of Antisemitism that always hovered over the community, so traumatised by the experiences of the Shoah that it was ever distrustful of wider society. At the slightest sign of Anti-Semitism people would speak of ‘having their suitcases packed and at the ready’ to leave for Israel (or America!). We grew up with extremely strict security measures; our shul had a security sluice between the main gate and the second gate of the synagogue: our shul had bullet proof glass, and our security volunteers (who would not just stand outside, exposed to intruders, but in their own little guard house at the gate) would use metal detectors to scan visitors. And one particular High Holydays – I can’t quite remember which year – when there was a specific security threat, we had an armoured vehicle right in front of the synagogue! It, may sound a little over the top, but it made us feel safer! And when I came to the UK, I was rather appalled at the, in my eyes, rather lax attitude to security!

But all that was in Europe; the Pittsburgh shooting took place in America! In the land of mass shootings, this
was the largest mass shooting of Jews in the USA; and that is what has been so shocking about it.

But it was more than a heinous act of antisemitism only as it transpired that one of the reasons for the atrocity was community Etz Chayyim’s support of the HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). Originally established in 1881 to aid immigrants fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, it now supports all refugees from any persecution
around the globe. The shooter allegedly wrote on an online forum that he believed that ‘the HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people’. He then wrote that he couldn’t ‘sit by and watch my people get slaughtered’…

Emily, in your d’var torah you mentioned the importance of focusing on life in the face of tragedy and loss. You gave the inspirational example of the resilience of your maternal great-grandparents who came here as refugees. Despite their many losses, they built up their lives and careers and gave the best future to their daughter, your Omi. I know that because of that background the plight of refugees is so important to her, as it is to so many Jewish people, who thank their life, their families and their future to the goodwill of others and to the countries of refuge which allowed them to build up new lives and gave renewed hope. So many of us feel
indebted to those countries of refuge – indebted and safe – and nowhere more so than the USA; which once was the melting pot of all races and religions; the country of hope and promise; the Goldene Medinah (the land of gold), to which so many of our ancestors fled from persecution and poverty. And indeed where else have Jews attributed so much to their country of refuge: in the arts, in science in entertainment …

Because we have been refugees ourselves we empathise with other refugees, but compassion for others is what incited hate in the gunman. It was not only because they were Jews that he wanted to kill, but because they were Jews who cared for strangers, which the gunman saw as a threat.

They were Jews who stood up against injustice and tried to make the world a better place l’takken et ha-olam (to repair this suffering world) – not just with words, but with deeds too. And why did they do so? Because they
are – we all are – descendants of Abraham, about whom you read today. Who did not stand idly by the blood of innocent people – who dared argue with God and question God’s justice, when God revealed He was about to destroy the cities of Sedom and Gemorah. And we do so because we live by the words of Torah which commands us: to love our neighbour as ourselves (v’ahavta l’re’each kamocha), and to love the stranger in our midst (v’ahavta et ha-ger) and not to stand idly by (al ta’amod al dam re’echa) all from Lev 19.

Because the Etz Chayyim community did just all of that and showed compassion to strangers, they were targeted by the gunman. Why is it that people are so frightened and hate people who are different from themselves so much? Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: And remembering that in our tradition, it is Fringes that make the garment holy. Why do fringes make the garment holy? Because fringes are threads of connection between our inward selves and the world beyond – reminding us that we end not with a sharp edge, a fence or a wall, but with a fuzzy mixture of “my” cloth and God’s air. All the communities that live on the fringes of “America” connect us with the “Other,” the Beyond. Cut us off, and America will die of strangulation.

It is our ability to empathise with the pain of others, which reminds those who hate us of their own insecurities, and that is why they hate us even more. But we cannot give in to that hatred and cower under the fear they spread. We have to stand strong together and continue to reach out to others. Thus I was tremendously strengthened by official messages of support, condolence and solidarity sent to our community by representatives of the Sikh Community, the Hindu community and the Ahmedia Muslim Community who were all appalled by the attack. Because they too realize that the attack on our community is an attack on all humanity, and only together can we eradicate this evil from the world. May that time come soon and last forever bimhera beyameinu – v’nomar: amen

November 8, 2018