A Jew Is A Jew: Lessons From Anti-Semitism
When I turned on my phone after Shabbat here in Israel, a nightmare scenario unfolded on my newsfeed.
During a brit milah, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, a gunman burst into the shul and went on a murderous rampage. As he was shooting he shouted out, “ALL JEWS MUST DIE.” By the time I woke up the next morning, the news outlets were reporting that it was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community ever held on US soil.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the rise of anti-semitism in the US and around the world had one of their worst fears realized yesterday. We have been playing out this scenario over and over in board meetings and security discussions at our institutions. We’ve watched what happened in South American countries, European countries and assorted devastating violence globally. But in America- here as Jews, we thought we were meant to be safe.
Growing up as a third-generation Holocaust survivor, America was the salvation of my family. The place that accepted us, sheltered us, and allowed us to lick our wounds and rise from the ashes of the Shoah. After 9/11, my grandmother, a survivor, struggled deeply with the pain of her feelings of “American safety” being broken. Progressively over these last years, America has become an increasingly dangerous place for all, from all forms of terrorism- domestic and foreign. So many people fear to go to the movies, the mall, public spaces, concerts, school and yes, even to pray.
What occurred in Pittsburgh yesterday already has a term in our Jewish vocabulary. It’s called a “Pogrom.” It carries significant historical, emotional and muscle memory for our people. As students of Jewish history, this event is already in our lexicon. This particular modern brand of violence is also within our understanding too.
When I was visibly distressed when I heard the news, my 8 year old asked my husband what had happened. He told her what happened, and explained it through the prism of the active shooter drills she practiced at school in America and here in Israel. She immediately understood.
So what do we do? As a people who have been through this type of experience before? We must always learn from history, as it always repeats itself. We need to wake up. We need to stare at this beast in the face, call it by its name, “Anti-Semitism,” and ready ourselves for what it means. We are living in a time of refreshed Anti-Semitism. It may look different. It may manifest in new ways. But it’s the oldest hatred in the book. As ancient as we are. Our most powerful enemy.
How do we combat this? How can we make meaning from meaningless murders? I believe we need to listen to the words of the murderer. “All Jews must die.” Not Conservative, not Charedi, not Reform, not Yeshivish, not Orthodox, or Reconstructionist. Not liberal or right wing. Not affiliated or unaffiliated. All. Hitler (yemach shmo) espoused the same idea. A Jew is a Jew no matter how they particularly identify.
I believe that we as a nation we need to use that perspective and flip it. A Jew is a Jew. Not because of how we live our lives, or what we believe. But because we exist. How powerful would it be if we loved each other because we exist. If we dropped the barriers of tribalism and acknowledge that even the 12 tribes were one people. If we focused on dropping what divides and embrace each other with love, and not judgment. “One people, with one heart.”
It is beautiful to see how all stripes and types of Jews are reaching out to the Pittsburgh community in solidarity. It was not just their sanctuary. The sanctum of that space belongs to us all.
I see lots of people sharing the articles on the attack and writing, “thoughts and prayers.” I also see a lot of people sharing the articles and criticizing those who are simply offering “thoughts and prayers.” Yes, I agree, there is much work to be done. Actions need to be taken. Advocacy must be engaged with.
Yet, prayer and intention are powerful too. I think about what those Jews in Pittsburgh were doing in their last moments on earth. They were praying to God. They were solidifying their commitment to their nation, by welcoming one of their own into the tribe. They were proclaiming themselves and that little boy, as a Jew in front of God and now the world. They were praying and taking action, simultaneously.
We have always been vulnerable no matter where we lived, no matter the time. Yet, we are an ancient people because we never gave up who we are. Sometimes we left our homes rather than be forced to give up our nationhood. Sometimes we were forced out and we started over somewhere else. Occasionally, we have fought back under the flag of our Magen David, in both ancient and modern times. Throughout history, one thread stays the same. It is our identity as Jews. It is our identity as Jews that gives our communities the ability to rebuild after tragedy. It gives us the strength and understanding to reach out to each other with love, through intention, through action, and through prayer.
So let’s learn from our ancestors. Let us not let fear of the future overwhelm us. Reach out and hold hands with your fellow Jews. Let’s strengthen each other by reminding us all, that none of us are alone. We will respond to vulnerability with action and advocacy. We will respond to fear with prayer. We will respond to violence with love.
May God remember His people once again when we cry out together, and may He redeem us with the ultimate redemption, where we know no more sorrow.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.