“All Jews must die,” he yelled before he opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Words of shocked surprise appeared quickly in the aftermath of that horrific bloodbath, but I didn’t feel shocked or surprised. Acts of terrorism on North American soil have become so commonplace now, it was just a matter of time before someone thought to target Jews directly. And where better to find us in groups than in a synagogue?
As I’ve sat in shul on the High Holidays over the past few years, the thought has occurred to me that if someone wanted to annihilate a group of us all at once in a loud, impactful statement of hatred, this would be the place and time to do it.
In January 2017, a similar incident occurred in a Quebec City mosque, and in October of that year, another maniac mowed down pedestrians on a New York bike path in the name of ISIS. There was the Las Vegas massacre of concert-goers that same month and, a year earlier, an Orlando nightclub shooting spree that left 49 dead. And these are just the major incidents that have occurred over the past few years. They targeted Muslims, homosexuals and ordinary people like you and me, whose lives ended in a collision with senseless evil.
Back in 1980, Eve Bunting published an allegory of the Holocaust titled Terrible Things. In her book, the forces of darkness swoop in unexpectedly and carry away different species of animals one by one. “We mustn’t ask why they were taken,” the remaining animals concur. “Just be glad it wasn’t us they wanted.”
Until now, it wasn’t us, the Jews, who were directly targeted. Not in North America, anyway. We could go to our synagogues and Jewish community centres with the sense of complacency that “it wouldn’t happen here.” Not in a Jewish house of worship. Not at a baby naming. Not on an ordinary Saturday morning in a regular neighbourhood.
“I’m not coming,” my daughter declared when I tried to convince her to come to the solidarity Shabbat immediately after the Pittsburgh shooting. “What if a bad guy comes to shoot us there?” I tried to assure her that I’d never put her in harm’s way, but the thought of the Pittsburgh massacre made me doubt my words, even as I uttered them.
Defiance has always been our answer. Israelis continued to catch their buses, even during the bus bombings. The solidarity Shabbat was our declaration that we will continue to go to shul unafraid. We will not permit random acts of hatred to keep us from our beliefs.
We went to synagogue that morning and sat through the Kiddush, as members of the congregation stepped up to speak at the podium.
“Hinai ma tov,” one declared of his happiness at seeing all of us together, united in prayer as Jewish brothers and sisters. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – we are all Jews, we are counted as one and this attack affects all of us,” he emphasized. Another spoke of how we must use this as an opportunity to perform even more mitzvot and spread light and love as far as we can. A third discussed the solidarity expressed by Muslims and Christians who had reached out to Jews with expressions of horror at the massacre.
Friendship is great. But it doesn’t bring back the 11 ordinary Jews who started what was going to be an ordinary fall weekend with a baby naming at their local synagogue. It doesn’t bring back Rose Mallinger, the 97-year-old great-grandmother, or the Sylvans, a couple who left this world at the same synagogue where they were married in 1956.
Where do we go from here? We embrace greater security outside our Jewish institutions. We say that we’re lucky we live in Canada, rather than the United States. And we soldier on in a state of muted disbelief, wondering quietly what kind of world we’re leaving to our children. We know now that it’s a world where some hate grows so deep that it fuels shooting rampages on innocent and vulnerable Jews, as they gather for their morning prayers.