November 22, 2018

‘Peoplehood Over Partisanship’

People in Queens, N.Y., gather for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. Photo by Jeenah Moon/Reuters

The following is a sermon that Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz of Adat Shalom delivered to his congregation on the Solidarity Shabbat of Nov. 3.


This morning’s talk feels like a monumental task: to discuss a tragic event that seems like it belongs in a different era in history — the murder of 11 Jews at shul during a brit milah in Pittsburgh by a neo-Nazi only one week ago. And I have to begin by acknowledging that I have far more questions at this point than answers. I have to contemplate whether we, as a Jewish community here in America, whether we can ever go back or should ever go back to the way we felt last Friday before the mass murder.

Most of us listen so much to the preachers of the great American cathedrals of the 24-hour news stations that I do not see any need to cover that which Jake Tapper or Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity have already said. In this discussion, I’ll attempt to consider the atrocity and our path forward from a different perspective — from a Jewish perspective.

All week, I have felt depressed and sad and mournful. And yet, I’ve seen little mourning. Rabbis in Pittsburgh, like Rabbi Jeremy Markiz who celebrated his aufruf with us last Shabbat, has asked for space to mourn. The front-page headline of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday was “Yitgadal V’Yitkadash” in Hebrew, referencing the iconic prayer during our mourning period.

Yet, in the immediate aftermath, the news ran with rage, certain rabbis in this community jumped to explain and blame from the outset. And it strikes me that, perhaps, in moments of our deepest anguish —  that is not the time for clearest thinking. And so I purposefully tried to remain silent. I purposefully tried to get to know that which was taken from our family.

1. Joyce Fienberg, a mother of two and grandmother of one, had a long career at the University of Pittsburgh as a research specialist.

2. Dr. Richard Gottfried was a dentist who devoted his life to his community, serving the local school district.

3. Rose Mallinger, 97 years young, was a mother of three, a grandmother of five and a great-grandmother of one, and she still cooked family meals for High Holidays. Her daughter Andrea was injured in the shooting.

4. Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz wore bow ties and smiles; and in the early 1990s, when he treated HIV patients, he held their hands without gloves to show them not to be afraid.

5 & 6. Brothers Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal were special souls, described as gentle and kind; and they always looked out for one another.

7 & 8. Bernice and Sylvan Simon were killed in the same synagogue in which they were married 62 years ago.

9. Daniel Stein was a simple guy, who according to his family was loved by all.

10. Melvin Wax liked to tell jokes in shul.

11. Irving Younger greeted people in shul and helped people know the correct page in the siddur.

‘The hope I have…is that we allow for a spirit of wisdom and compromise to once again enter public discourse.”

We pray God comforts all of the mourners among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and we pray for the full recovery of body and spirit for all of the wounded and the brave first responders who raced to the scene to battle evil. 

Those lives were not only ripped from us, our sense of security was stripped away as well. The silver lining of this entire week is the solidarity of other communities —  Christians, Muslims and others — who have stepped forward and offered assistance. I have received letters from surrounding churches, emails from church leaders in the interfaith softball league in which we participate, and outreach from my professors and classmates in Claremont.

However, in my opinion, this Solidarity Shabbat is not about interfaith dialogue. This is a Shabbat to consider out loud that which we rarely do as Jews in America. We have tremendous solidarity when it comes to tragedy. We all believe vehemently that our brothers and sisters should not be murdered. But I wonder if we, the American-Jewish community, can agree on any fundamental truths about the way forward?

The reason I ask is because this community of Adat Shalom is made up of all kinds of Jews. Different levels of religious practice, different levels of community participation, different political leanings. I’ve always seen our community as richer for this diversity, and I’ve always believed that we share more in common than we do that divides us. And I suspect you do, too, and that’s why you’re here. I wonder if we can sit here and reflect together. Even if it’s uncomfortable, can we reflect about a path forward together? 

Anti-Semitism is nothing new. But, does this shooting signify something more significant than just a brutal act of anti-Semitism? Is it a mark of moral decay? A corrosion of the very fabric of the American tapestry? I was willing to accept Charlottesville [Va.] as an aberration. But I have to admit that I think Pittsburgh makes a trend.

I think all of us can agree that the atmosphere in this country has become more extreme over the years, in every sense: politically, socially, culturally. Drastic change and new policy comes about at a faster rate than ever before. Our swing from the last administration to this one, in every sense, has been a deep and drastic pendulum swing. And I want to suggest that this aggressive societal change is never good for Jews.

We did not bring about this atrocity. I resent any context that uses Israel policy or American Jewish success to explain the context of this deranged neo-Nazi’s behavior. We didn’t ask for this Solidarity Shabbat. At the same time, if our mission is to be the light unto the nations, perhaps this is the time for us to rise up to shed light in this dark period. Perhaps the way to honor 11 Jews murdered for coming to synagogue is to sit in synagogue and wonder how we can help protect one another.

As the inheritors of Talmudic argumentation, we don’t participate in a lot of healthy debate. We don’t insist on respecting minority opinions like our holy texts do. We don’t strive for compromise for the sake of later generations. Today we, much like our American neighbors, try to win and strike and smear our opponents. For example, think about the debates between Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and President [Donald] Trump. Do you feel like we gained any understanding from an exchange of ideas regarding the fears and also the benefits of our immigration policy, or around the rights and also the responsibilities of gun ownership, or around the freedom and also the limitations of media and social media in this new day and age? 

“The silver lining of this entire week is the solidarity of other communities — Christians, Muslims and others — who have stepped forward and offered assistance”

As a people who begin the holiest day of our year with Kol Nidre, the negation of all of our verbal vows, we have to do a better job explaining to people that words matter. This point didn’t strike me as crucial until my childhood friend and now assistant professor of American politics at Northeastern Illinois University, William Adler, was on television this week explaining the nuance and connotation of the word “nationalist,” as opposed to the word “patriot.” For better or worse, saying “nationalist” into a microphone that is attached to the seal of the Oval Office creates a signpost to human garbage of every order, including the white nationalist neo-Nazi who committed this murder. It sends a message that nationalism is welcome. We are too schooled in the value of words to accept this harmful wordplay. Now is not the time to be blind to the type of code that is being used to incite anti-Semitism and anti-Israel behavior on both sides.

I know there are many today who don’t want me to discuss both sides during this time — who don’t want to take stock in our position in America at-large because it’s easier to put the entire blame for everything at the feet of one person. I think that simple logic is incredibly unwise and un-Jewish. Whenever we hear a single, simple solution to a complicated societal problem, we should be smarter than to believe it.

For a people whose most sacred law bans idol worship, I see a great deal of it in our politics. And so today, I believe it’s incumbent on Jews who voted for President Trump to call the White House and express outrage at any notion that allows the alt-right, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others to feel comfortable out of the shadows. If we voted for President Trump, we are not to then root for him, but rather hold him responsible. It’s our obligation to call and explain that the messianic Jew who recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in Jesus’ name before Vice President Pence does not represent the Jewish people. It’s our obligation to denounce this tone-deaf response to respecting the Jewish community. The important foreign policy moves for Israel have been much appreciated, but that can’t be traded in exchange for a stoking of dangerous fires for Jews here in America. We should never have to make that choice. These calls should simply begin, “Mr. President, I’m a Jew who actually voted for you, and I am profoundly disappointed in …” And then insert your ideas. And I’m sorry anybody feels like this is getting political but I hear rabbis screaming about President Trump all the time and I dismiss them because they’ve been screaming since the day he was elected. And I’m sure the president does as well. But when something like this happens, it’s time for all of us to reflect, reconsider and call our elected officials responsible for an appropriate reaction. His words have to be more thoughtful and have to clearly denounce white nationalism at every opportunity.

Not to draw a comparison on situations, but I spoke the same way in 2016 about those of us who voted for President [Barack] Obama and his Israel policy. I called on Democratic Jews to call the White House and speak out against President Obama’s damaging parting shot against Israel in the form of Resolution 2334 at the U.N. Had I been the rabbi here at the time, I would have called on Democratic Jews to call the White House and decry the Iran deal as well.

It’s time for alumni of UCLA to call the university administration and ask them about the difference between free speech and hate speech in light of the upcoming national conference for Students for Justice in Palestine to be held on the UCLA campus. SJP members and speakers regularly call for violence against Jews and Israel.

My point is that the nature of this Shabbat calls on each of us to look inside ourselves and see what organizations we support, parties with which we are associated, and how each of us can act to speak out against anti-Semitism. There are many, many anti-Semites I can list — associated with each party — who regularly speak against Jews or Israel in a way they would never about other peoples and other countries. And if we vote for a candidate, then we must declare ourselves his or her overseer, not only her or his fan.

Our Torah reveals to us flaws of each of our ancestors, each of our heroes. Nobody is perfect. To think that the atmosphere in this country has become toxic solely because of one person or one president is naïve. And, to absolve ourselves of any responsibility regarding President Trump’s coded language is impetuous. Every single one of us must hold ourselves to stand up against anti-Semitism, specifically, and racism in general across the country.

This mass murder of Jews occurred during a weekend when African-Americans were killed by a racist and during a week when Nazi-themed Halloween costumes and parties were revealed around the country and synagogues were vandalized, one in the Los Angeles area. The Tree of Life synagogue is a symptom of a terrible disease of hate and racism in this country at large. But we can’t address this problem if we act like Americans. If we retreat to our corners and act petty and try to win. We can only add something to the conversation if and only if we rely on our Jewish values of wisdom and compromise and responsibility, and a recognition that words matter.

“I know there are many today who don’t want me to discuss both sides during this time — who don’t want to take stock in our position in America at-large because it’s easier to put the entire blame for everything at the feet of one person. I think that simple logic is incredibly unwise and un-Jewish.” 

The hope I have for this community is that we come together in the way of tzedakah that we give as a community to the Tree of Life synagogue. If you’d like to participate, go to our website or please call our office on Monday.

The hope I have for this Solidarity Shabbat is that Jews in America realize
that there is far more that we have in common with each other than divides us politically. To stand against anti-Semitism means that each of us needs to look inside and not choose partisanship over peoplehood, but rather use our partisanship to protect our joint bond of peoplehood. Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh La’Zeh — All Jews are responsible for one another. That is the spirit of our people. Perhaps the path forward to protect our people is to really listen to the concerns of our neighbors here in this room and around our community, and then use our partisanship to protect our people.

The hope I have for America is that a new spirit of promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is extended for all people irrespective of race, religion or gender. That we allow for a spirit of wisdom and compromise to once again enter public discourse. And that we, as Jews, lead through our values of love, justice, humility and Torah. Because, in the words of our prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by God’s spirit alone” may we all live in peace. 

May we all live in peace, soon. And let us say, amen.