Rabbis have curious schedules. No day is the same as any other. The range and varied nature of my work is such that it’s never dull. However, the week before last was especially interesting, and particularly challenging.
I went to two training sessions. One, called “Stop the Bleed,” is part of a national effort to train law enforcement officers and people who work in schools how to prevent the unnecessary loss of life in the context of what is now called a “mass casualty incident,” that is, a shooting or stabbing of multiple people in a public place. This training session, run by the FBI, was sponsored by UPMC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, and so there were not only cops there, but also an assortment of employees of Jewish institutions. We learned how to apply direct pressure, to pack wounds and to tie tourniquets, all ways to prevent the injured from dying of blood loss. (Not only did I receive a certificate from the FBI, but they also gave me my very own tourniquet! I hope I never have to use it, but it will live in my tallit bag.)
The other training was held here at Beth Shalom, run by the Federation’s new Director of Jewish Community Security, Brad Orsini, and this one was “active shooter” training. You can imagine what that’s about: 1. Run! 2. Hide! 3. Fight!
It is exceptionally tragic that we have to be prepared for these things. But it is today’s unfortunate reality. I don’t want anybody to be concerned – we of course are hoping that we will never have to face such a situation. But it is certainly better to be prepared. (You should know that we are also revamping our current security plan here at Beth Shalom.)
I must say that I was quite surprised and dismayed by the news, which broke on Thursday, that the perpetrator of at least some of the threatening calls to JCCs and day schools was a Jewish teen living in Israel, a 19-year-old with dual citizenship, some apparent emotional challenges, and a phalanx of fancy technology. While I am relieved that this activity was not committed by a hate group, I am utterly devastated that one of our own would cause so much chaos in our community.
Nonetheless, there is no question that anti-Jewish activity is on the rise. We do not know where it is coming from or why, but the increase is unmistakable. The organizations that keep track of these things (the ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.) have reported a rise in anti-Jewish incidents in the last few years, independent of the current political climate.
About a month ago on Shabbat afternoon, one of our families was yelled at in Squirrel Hill, walking home from Beth Shalom after services. (“Hitler did nothing wrong!” was screamed from a car window.) While Brad Orsini told us that local law enforcement has not seen a significant increase in such incidents, we have to be aware that they do happen, and that it’s very upsetting and frightening to experience these things.
If something like this happens to you, please report the incident! Call Brad at Federation. Call me. Get a license plate number if you can. This information is truly valuable to law enforcement.
As I have said here before, I grew up in an America almost completely un-molested by open anti-Semitism. Almost all of my friends, growing up in small-town New England, were Christian, and none of them seemed to harbor any anti-Jewish attitudes. Yes, a high school friend once used the expression “to Jew me down” in my presence, not knowing what it meant and why it might be offensive. And, when I was in 6th grade, I started wearing a kippah on a daily basis to my public school, where there were very few other Jewish kids. I was teased for it, but in my mind that was kids making fun of difference rather than gentiles targeting a Jew. Aside from these things, the America in which I grew up has always seemed to me not only welcoming to Jews, but more or less religion-blind.
But that was not true for my parents’ generation. I think that, prior to the middle of the 20th century, Jewish life was marked by fear and mistrust of the non-Jew, and with good reason. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, once remarked, “We used to think of ourselves as beloved by God. Now we think of ourselves as hated by the gentiles.” The bread-and-butter elements of rabbis’ sermons, deep into the 20th century, were the Holocaust and Israel, resonating with a palpable fear and its perceived antidote.
So it is all the more shocking that anti-Semitism is on the rise again. How do we respond to these disturbing trends? What can we do as individuals and as a community to ensure not only our physical well-being, but also our spiritual wholeness?
The essential response is one of qehillah, which you might translate as “community.”
It’s an interesting word, qehillah. (You all know by now how much I love words!) It’s the term that is currently in fashion at United Synagogue for how to refer to a synagogue community. Perhaps a better translation of qehillah would be “gathering” or “assembly.” A choir is a “maqhelah;” the book that we call Ecclesiastes in English (well, Latin) is Qohelet, the one who gathers people to distribute his wisdom.
And, of course, the first word (and title) of our parashah this morning was “Vayaqhel,” meaning, Moshe “gathered” the the whole Israelite community to tell them about a range of important laws, among them explicit instructions regarding the building of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary that the Israelites used in the desert to make sacrifices).
One suggestion that we might read from this is that the mishkan is a tool of assembly. It is a focal point that brings people together for a holy purpose.
We have no mishkan today, or anything like it. Buildings are not holy; it what takes place within them that creates qedushah, holiness. And what we do to create that virtual mishkan today is to gather as a community, to come together for holy purposes. One such purpose is what we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer and talmud torah / learning, and of course there’s the eating and schmoozing after.
Another such gathering of Jews as a community for a sacred task was the communal vigil that was held last motza’ei Shabbat (Saturday night) on behalf of immigrants and refugees. As a qehillah / community, we have the potential to stand up in defense of the gerim, the resident aliens among us, whom the Torah exhorts us to treat with dignity 36 times.
Another such gathering of Jews for a holy purpose was the communal Purimshpil at the JCC two weeks ago. The story of one righteous woman who triumphed over the forces of Amaleq was told in song and dance and theatrical frivolity, as is appropriate for Purim.
And we will gather as a community in a few weeks for a communal seder, at which we will tell the story of liberation from slavery and dine as free people who understand that our obligation is to free all the slaves in this world.
And just a few weeks after that, we will gather to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, and remember that the State of Israel, its people, its culture, and yes, even its political balagan (mess) are an essential part of who we are, even seven time zones away.
Our strength is in our togetherness. When we stand together, we show the world and ourselves what we can do as a qehillah, as a people gathered for a holy purpose.
When we at Beth Shalom stood together a few weeks back to receive the Aseret HaDibberot, the Decalogue (aka the “Ten Commandments”) in Parashat Yitro, just as our ancestors did at Mt. Sinai, we rose together to hear God’s introductory line: I am the one who brought you out of Egypt. Anokhi, says God. “I”.
The early Hasidic sage, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov (1745-1815), said that all that the Israelites heard at Sinai, gathered at the foot of the mountain, was the alef, the first letter of anokhi. This is, of course, paradoxical; the alef itself makes no sound. It is a simple glottal stop, the absence of consonant or vowel. But contained within that silent alef was all of the content of Jewish life, a unity of revelation in apparent nothingness.
That unity is the numerical value of alef; one. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the alef is also the first word of the Hebrew word for unity: ahdut (from ehad, one).
What the Israelites heard, assembled together as a qehillah at Sinai, was unity. Oneness. Togetherness. And when we stand together today, we are one in a way that has kept us as a distinct people 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, 900 years after the Crusades, 500 years after the Expulsion from Spain, and 72 years after the end of the Nazi reign of terror.
That alef has enabled us to stand up to fear and hatred in our midst. All kinds of fear and hatred.
What can we do to combat hatred? We can stand together. We can be a qehillah. We are the alef.
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/25/2017.)