After Orlando: Heartbroken, but with resolve

My heart is broken. I woke up Shavuot morning inspired by a night of study with my Reform colleagues and our communities.
June 15, 2016

My heart is broken. I woke up Shavuot morning inspired by a night of study with my Reform colleagues and our communities. I was ready to receive the Torah at our morning service as we stood at Sinai again and then celebrate the continuation of gay pride weekend the same day.

Yet, I awoke to horror and tragedy. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was targeted by a madman, a terrorist who murdered young people dancing the night away. He murdered LGBTQ young people because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. He murdered people because he was taught to hate. He terrorized our nation and me because of his radicalization that has gone unchecked.

And then the texts came in from community activists that a man had been detained in Santa Monica on his way to West Hollywood’s LA Pride parade armed with weapons and materials for an improvised explosive device.

I am still shaking. Young people ought to be out on a Saturday night dancing. Celebrating the gift of their youth, with the pulsing beat of the bass line all that they should hear. Not the sound of rapid, automatic gunfire and bullets tearing through flesh.

Shavuot morning services should have lifted us up as we received the Torah again. I could not wish my congregation a chag sameach on this blood-stained morning. I couldn’t help but focus on the sixth commandment, “Lo Tirzach,” “Thou shalt not murder.” Has our world gone so mad that it enables murder to be committed in such wholesale ways?

This is not the first time that the LGBTQ community has been attacked. The gay pride movement got its start as a response to a police raid on a gay bar in New York City in 1969.  And the LGBTQ community remembers only too well the fire in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, and the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1998, or the hundreds of violent deaths of transgender people, gay men and lesbians each year. Even this year, in March in Los Angeles, a young man was shot by his father because he was gay. This kind of hatred and violence is not isolated to some remote small town or a particular region of our country.

This heinous crime committed in Orlando rings across our nation. For me, it must be a wake-up call. Gun violence is an epidemic. Those who oppose background checks for gun buyers or removing assault weapons from the streets are sorely misguided. How many more have to die? We said it after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the murders at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. We said it after Virginia Tech and just two weeks ago at UCLA.

Our Jewish community knows only too well the consequences of terror and guns in Israel and here. We have experienced firsthand the horrific moments at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murders at the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle and the cafes in Tel Aviv. We as a community must work hard to change the national conversation about gun violence.

The hate-filled rhetoric that surrounds us must be silenced. There are too many political leaders and religious leaders who teach that the LGBTQ community is less than human.

The backlash against the LGBTQ community since last year’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is vicious. With the introduction and passage of so many legislative bills across the United States that take away basic human rights, even to use a bathroom, the environment against LGBTQ people has become even more toxic than before. Many of those bills give businesses and individuals the right to discriminate in the public square. This coordinated attack on the LGBTQ community gives permission to continue to dehumanize gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people. Why are they so afraid of us? Of me?

We must not give in to our fears, but must live our strengths and act as our God teaches us to act in the belief that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe we must insist on better from ourselves and those who want to lead — be they clerics, politicians, teachers, celebrities or journalists.

The LGBTQ revolution began as an effort to be left alone. It began as a way to say “Stop harassing us. Let us be ourselves, and we will speak up and march for and with our dignity and for our rights.” That is really the idea behind pride.

When we talk about this past weekend — and the pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community — this, my friends, is what we are striving for. The freedom to be ourselves. To stand strong in our abilities. To assert our equality and speak our truths. And even when they try to strip us of our civil rights, to fight not with anger, but with dignity, love and strength.

We, the Jewish people, have always been an “or lagoyim,” a “light to the nations.” We have just received our Torah once again at Sinai in the wilderness. The great Babylonian rabbi, Rava, taught that when people open themselves to everyone like a wilderness, God gives them the Torah.

It is time to teach and lead that openness to all. Our Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This must be our commitment to changing the rhetoric and hate focused at the LGBTQ community. It must be our commitment in thought and deed and, yes, in the House and Senate, and state legislatures and everywhere.

Today I am still mourning the deaths of these young people in Orlando. Young people whose lives were cut short. I send my consolation and condolences to the families and friends who have lost someone in this violent tragedy. I pray for healing for all those injured and give thanks for the responders, the doctors, nurses, police and fire departments, ambulance drivers and people who helped rescue and treat the victims.

But when the time of our mourning has ended, I will redouble my efforts to eradicate discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community. I will work for safe and sane gun regulations and reach out to those that are perceived as “other” in friendship and love.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and the current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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