I’m more than willing to close the book on 5778, which was filled with pain, scandal, and loss…. Yes, Rosh HaShanah comes early this year, but if you ask me, it can’t get here soon enough. It’s past time for us to ring in 5779.”
These are my words in this space from just over a year ago. Though the message couldn’t be construed as hopeful, looking back my fractionally younger self seems so naïve, blissfully unaware of the tragedy that was to befall our people weeks after the end of the High Holiday season.
Of course there are certain flashpoints in history, moments that are seared in our memories forever, for good or bad. The big three in the U.S. are usually the bombing of Pearl Harbor, assassination of JFK, and 9/11, none of which need any description or explanation; everyone knows exactly what they refer to. Slightly less obvious examples are the Challenger explosion, the moon landing, and the election of Barack
Jews around the world have their own moments: the Yom Kippur War, recapturing the Temple Mount during the Six-Day War, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. We could add the massacre in Munich, Germany, during the 1972 Olympics; the United Nations vote to recognize Israel; and perhaps Vice President Al Gore’s choosing Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate for his presidential run in 2000.
Little did I know that, just a month and a half after publishing my Rosh HaShanah column, the list would expand. Instead of evoking the symbolism of the Torah, for the next several generations Jews who hear the words “Tree of Life” will think about the 11 people massacred by a white supremacist at a Pittsburgh congregation during Shabbat services on Oct. 27.
Where were you? I was at the afternoon service at my synagogue that Shabbat evening when a couple of police officers walked into the sanctuary to speak to the rabbi, who announced the news shortly thereafter. The officers had come to brief the rabbi on the situation and let him know that law enforcement would be keeping a close eye on the congregation, and others in the area, in case it was not an isolated event.
And it was not. Exactly six months later, on the last day of Passover, a teenage gunman opened fire at Jews praying at the Chabad of Poway in California, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injuring three more, including Brooklyn native Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. And two months ago, a 20-year-old man was arrested after making threats on social media to carry out a mass shooting at the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown, Ohio, approximately 65 miles north of Pittsburgh, where it all started.
But the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting marked another flashpoint for me: It was the first time I spoke to my son, then 7, about anti-Semitism. There was a push among the American-Jewish community to attend prayer services on the Shabbat following the tragedy as a show of unity, but my son had no interest in going when I picked him up from school that Friday afternoon. “Why can’t we just stay home?” he asked.
It wasn’t a difficult question, but pitfalls surrounded the right answer. He’s at the age when he is starting to learn — to the extent that anyone can — about death, hatred, and evil, but will he feel comfortable being Jewish when he knows there are people who target us because of it? And if he no longer feels safe in the synagogue — where he plays with friends, learns about Judaism, eats an outrageous amount of candy, and on very rare occasions, prays — will he ever want to go again?
I took a deep breath. “Last Shabbos morning a man came into a shul in Pittsburgh — do you know where Pittsburgh is? — and he…” at this point my eyes filled with tears that I hastily tried to wipe away before he could see, “…he hurt people, Jewish people, just because they were Jewish. So on this Shabbos, Jews around the country are going to go to shul to show others like him that we’re not scared and we’re not going to stop being Jewish no matter what.”
It wasn’t eloquent (truthfully the retelling here is likely far more articulate than the live version), and I don’t know if hearing about it, or my response, affected him in any meaningful way. Kids are always more resilient than we give them credit for, and we generally give ourselves more credit than we deserve, so he probably just shook it off and moved on in a way that adults cannot. But I do know that he went to synagogue with our family that night without an argument, and he still has no qualms about wearing his kipa in public.
Now that we are again about to turn the page on a year “filled with pain, scandal, and loss,” my prayer for our Jewish community in New Jersey, the U.S., in Israel, and around the world is that we hold onto the grief those old enough to understand felt this year, both to honor our fallen brethren and to remind us to stay vigilant and unified in defiance of those who seek to destroy us. But I also pray that, like my son, we are able to shake it off and proudly wear our Jewish identities, literally and figuratively, in the open without fear.
May it be God’s will that the only sadness we feel next Rosh HaShanah will be because 5780, a year that was filled with simcha, safety, love, and unity, had to come to an end.
Shanah tovah umetuka — wishing you a sweet new year, and may you and your loved ones be inscribed in the Book of Life.