When TV screens began flashing headlines reading “Six die in temple shooting,” Jewish viewers gasped in recognition. That it was a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., didn’t mitigate the shock or outrage that a gunman had invaded a house of faith and coldly executed worshipers. Even as each week brings news of senseless attacks on innocents, from Bulgaria to Colorado, the temple attack still had the power to shatter any sense of fatigue.
Jews and Sikhs are bound together in more ways than they might have realized before this week’s shooting. Like Jews, Sikhs, with their roots in India, are a distinct group who define themselves in both religious and ethnic terms. Like Jews of perhaps a generation go, Sikh immigrants are attempting to balance particularity and assimilation, trying to hold onto their traditions while entering the American mainstream. And because they remain distinctive in their dress and worship, they find themselves targets of the racist and nihilistic fringe that haunts white power and neo-Nazi websites and organizations. Wade Michael Page, the 40-year-old man suspected in the massacre, was a denizen of such sites and a white power music scene.
Recognizing these links, Milwaukee’s Jewish community quickly moved to help the survivors and shell-shocked bystanders. The Jewish Community Relations Council opened a mailbox to receive donations, offered counseling services, and began talks to bring religious leaders together for an interfaith prayer service. “Unfortunately, because we have experienced through much of our history bigotry, hatred, and anti-Semitism, this event is very acute for us in its pain,” Jacob Herber, of Milwaukee’s Congregation Beth Israel, told JTA. “That’s why I think we feel not only the obligation but the real personal, profound emotion of wanting to reach out to the Sikh community.”
After the grieving and after the healing, the typical questions will be asked and the typical responses offered. The work of local, state, and federal authorities who track hate groups will be helped immeasurably by the Jewish groups and partner organizations who monitor organized bigotry. Jewish institutions have also offered their guidance on institutional security, a topic about which Jews know probably more than they ever cared to.
Tragedies like the shooting in Oak Creek have a way of bringing communities together in common cause. That is not much consolation, but perhaps it will inspire us to reach out in peaceful times and to discover surprising bonds among neighbors.