October 22, 2019

Three Gatherings After a Massacre

Photo by Kelly Hartog

Shabbat was shattered with the news that 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I don’t know why I had a feeling that I should go online on Shabbos, but soon enough I was riveted. The screen was a lifeline, connecting me to Jews and our allies.

Across the world, we held one another. Jewish friends from around the country, Palestinian Muslims and people of every religion (and no religion), every shade and size and sexuality and way to be human joined the chorus of solidarity, love, outrage and pain.

Within the next 24 hours I participated in three gatherings, two of which were planned before the atrocity. Each reminded me of why I love being a Jew, an American and a proud daughter of Los Angeles.

After Shabbat, I accompanied a friend to the Day of the Dead observance in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  It was a raucous, eerie, sorrowful, joyous celebration of and with the dead. There were ancient dances and reggaetón. Gorgeously artful altars filled with ofrendas of food and drink were graced with traditional orange flowers and blinking chili lights. On altars where we could write the names of our dead I added memorials to the 11.

On Sunday afternoon I attended the Souls to the Polls rally — a gathering of the faithful, particularly from L.A.’s Black churches — to encourage early voters. Pastor William D. Smart and Reverend Kelvin Sauls each spoke of the Pittsburgh killings, reminding us how imperative it is to vote our values when they are under attack.

“Each [gathering] reminded me of why I love being a Jew, an American and a proud daughter of Los Angeles.”

That community knows our sorrow. They remember the Charleston Massacre of 2015, when a white supremacist gunned down nine African-American worshippers in church. They are mourning for Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, two African-Americans murdered Oct. 24 in a Kroger parking lot in Louisville by a racist who tried moments earlier to enter a Black church.

That night, along with hundreds of Jews and allies, I attended the vigil at the West Los Angeles Federal Building in Westwood, in honor of the dead. Our Jewish mayor, Eric Garcetti, spoke as one of us and as the mayor of all L.A. Rejecting the idea that we could denounce the murders without naming context, he reminded us of the Kroger murders and the racist “dog whistles and full-throated cries of conspiracies,” that result in “elders mowed down as a baby is being named.” Yes. The murderer may have despaired of Trump not being anti-Semitic enough, but he echoed Trump’s talking points, calling refugees invaders, aiming vitriol at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for helping them.

Muslim leader Aziza Hasan, executive director of New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, gave vent to her “pain and sorrow” at the killings. She recalled how, when the Islamic Center of Southern California was menaced, Rabbi Susan Goldberg offered immediate support. Goldberg answered Hasan’s fears about bringing her children to mosque at such a dangerous time by showing up with her own children to reclaim the space.

Again, we stood with Pastors Sauls and Smart. Reverend Sauls, an immigrant from South Africa, invited us to come together as one people, “Jews, Christians and Muslims, Black, White and Hispanic, to unite in the politics of truth.”

The gathering ended with Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles’ reciting her powerful prayer/poem, “My Name Is Jew.” She read the names of those who died al kiddush HaShem, and we stood in silence, grieving but not defeated. The memory of our martyrs is already a blessing.

Los Angeles is the kind of city the Pittsburgh murderer hates. A city where descendants of the Great Migration from the segregated South and the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe mingle with those who just arrived from other countries and those whose ancestors were here before people on other continents ever heard of the place. A city of ofrendas and gospel choirs and Jews reclaiming our name.

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal-State Long Beach and writes the Erev Rav blog on jewishjournal.com.