(Note: Temple Israel convened a memorial service which took place November 1, 2018, in the aftermath of the shootings in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Over 500 people attended. Speakers included Duluth’s Chief of Police Mike Tusken, Dr. Nik Hassan from the Islamic Center of the Twin Ports, and Rev. Robyn Weaver of Glen Avon Presbyterian Church of Duluth. Pastor Robyn grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. My own remarks follow:)
Thank you, Pastor Robyn for your poignant recollections of Squirrel Hill. Your words help us be more present to the tragedy of what occurred there last Saturday morning. I also have some connections to the area. I lived in Squirrel Hill for several months in 1986, during the summer between my second and third years of law school. I had a summer clerkship that year in a downtown Pittsburgh law firm and was subletting a room in an apartment in Squirrel Hill. My recollections are a bit hazy at this point, but I don’t think I ever went to the Tree of Life Synagogue. Rather I attended services at one of the other synagogues in the neighborhood on most of the Shabbases that I was in the area. But I do remember the vibrancy of the Jewish and general cultural life in Squirrel Hill and I loved going running in the two huge city parks – Schenly Park – which bordered Squirrel Hill on the west and Frick Park which bordered Squirrel Hill on the east.
In addition to knowing that my friend Pastor Robyn had Squirrel Hill connections, several of my colleagues in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association grew up in Squirrel Hill, including one colleague in particular who was a cousin of the two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were killed in last week’s attack. So, it all hits pretty close to home.
As we all gather here tonight, I know that for many of us our emotions are still swirling and we are still stressed out and upset --- not only over the anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, but also over the racist attack at the Kroger’s Supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and also over the politically partisan pipe bomb attack attempts last week --- and also over the generally horrific depths to which civil discourse has fallen in our country lately.
That is why the words
of the President of the United States
have been so healing
and inspiring to me and to so many others….
I refer of course to the words of President George Washington.
Here’s what our first President wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790: These words remind us of how fortunate we are to live in this great country:
While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.
If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Of course, we know that back in 1790 just as today, our country is still far from being a perfect union. The events of last week remind us only too well that racism, anti-semitism and general xenophobia and intolerance remain powerful forces. We have to be ever vigilant, not only for our physical safety but also for our political liberty.
Neighborly support of one another is imperative. Civic engagement is imperative --- if you haven’t taken advantage of early voting opportunities already, please make sure you vote on election day this coming Tuesday!
We in the Jewish community are particularly shaken by the fact that the Pittsburgh dead were targeted specifically because they were Jews. This is not unprecedented. Anti-semitism has been a repugnant societal evil for centuries and millenia.
But we will refuse to be intimidated.
And we are ever grateful for the friendship and support of our friends from beyond the Jewish community – including those of you who have joined us here this evening.
Yesterday, one of our Temple Israel congregants, Robin Washington, and I were interviewed by Henry Banks on his Wisconsin Public Radio program “People of Color.” One of the things Robin talked about was how he is impacted by being part of two groups that have been the target of hatred and violence – being both Jewish and African-American. And I talked about the impact on me of being part of two groups that have been the target of hatred and violence – being both Jewish and gay. Each form of hatred has its own unique historical background and expression but ultimately it all comes down to whether or not we truly see ourselves and our fellow human beings as btzelem Elohim – in the image of God. That’s the charge that’s set out for us in all of the great faith traditions --- to treat others as we would have ourselves treated. To see the good in each person. To love our neighbor. To love the stranger.
The lectionary reading in Jewish congregations around the world this week is Parashat Chayyei Sarah. This Torah portion opens with an account of Sarah’s death. But towards the end of the parasha, in Genesis 24 verse 67, when Rebecca unites with Sarah’s son Isaac, Torah teaches:
וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַֽחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ
“And he loved her and thus Isaac found comfort after his mother’s death.”
Similarly, may those who lost loved ones in Jeffersontown, Kentucky and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania find comfort in their time of loss.
And as for us, we who are profoundly shaken by these deaths though we are not the designated mourners ourselves, may we stay hopeful and resilient as we work together towards what the American Framers called the formation of a “more perfect union” and what the Jewish Sages called “tikkun ha-olam”/ “the repair of the world.”
So that the memories of
Vickie Lee Jones
Maurice E. Stallard
may truly be for a blessing.
© Rabbi David Steinberg
November 2018/ Cheshvan 5779