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Former Tree of Life rabbi calls for action on guns and hate

Rabbi Chuck Diamond (Rabbi Chuck Diamond/Facebook)

HAMILTON, ONT. – Thoughts and prayers just aren’t enough when you’re mourning 11 good people murdered for simply being Jewish.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond has been preaching that message for the last 10 months, ever since a gunman walked into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation synagogue and started shooting.

Instead of words, no matter how well-meaning, the synagogue’s former rabbi wants political action on the thorny issue of gun control and hate.

“When something like this happens, politicians will send us thoughts and prayer, but we need more than that,” Rabbi Diamond said in an interview ahead of a Sept. 15 appearance in Hamilton, Ont. “They need to have a real plan of action.”

Rabbi Diamond was at home on the fateful morning of Oct. 27 last year. He learned of the unfolding assault in a telephone call and, even though he and the congregation had parted ways the year before, he rushed to the shul to do what he could for his former congregants.

(Beset by declining membership and revenue, the congregation had bought out the rabbi’s expensive employment contract after he refused a salary cut.)

The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Google Streetview)

“This happened virtually in my backyard. It was two blocks from where I live and grew up,” said Rabbi Diamond. In the United States, “we have mass shootings one after the other, but nothing ever seems to get done.”

Today, he uses the platform the tragedy has given him to push American politicians to finally take real action on the issue of gun control and remind the world of the lives lost to mindless hatred.

“I want to do something to make the victims come alive for the people I’m talking to,” he said. “They were special souls and, after something like this, we need to feel like we’re doing something that has some kind of impact.”

In the wake of the attack, there were many calls for the usual menu of actions – placing armed guards at synagogues during service times, encouraging some congregants to bring weapons to their prayers, placing controls on who can have access to weapons such as assault rifles, and trying to find some way of cooling the atmosphere of hate that has gripped much of the world.

“If there had been an armed guard there that day, I assume there just would have been one more person dead,” said Rabbi Diamond. “We were a quiet neighbourhood where we thought something like this could never happen, but it did and that’s something we need to be aware of and deal with.”

While Rabbi Diamond supports an immediate ban on weapons such as the assault rifle used in the attack on the shul, he also speaks out for a change in American political leadership to end an environment where hate finds public expression.

The Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Dan Rosenberg photo)

One of the worst examples of that atmosphere, he said, was shown in President Donald Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which one person died.

“The rhetoric from the top in the United States has changed and created an atmosphere where the hate that has maybe always been beneath the surface can now be expressed openly,” said Rabbi Diamond. “The white supremacists now feel more empowered to express their opinions.”

“It’s clear our culture needs to change, but I’m not sure how that’s going to happen in the long term,” he added.

Rabbi Diamond was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1985. He served in various capacities in congregations in New York, Michigan and his hometown of Pittsburgh. In 2005, he founded Congregation Or L’Simcha, eventually merging it with Tree of Life.

In July 2017, he started work on a new project, Kehillah La La, described as “an all-inclusive community engaging people in the joys of Judaism.” Rabbi Diamond has also spent parts of the past 45 summers at Camp Ramah in Canada, in addition to officiating at interfaith weddings, writing children’s books and appearing in the movie American Pastoral and TV show Downward Dog. He has also been featured on an ESPN segment on faith and football.

Rabbi Diamond’s appearance in Hamilton is set for Sept. 15 from 4-6 p.m. at Beth Jacob Synagogue, 375 Aberdeen Ave. Admission is $18 ($10 for students).

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