Further Thoughts On Pittsburgh

November 2, 2018/ 24 Heshvan 5779

My father was an atheist, and he was a Jew.  It probably takes a Jew to understand why those two qualities are not mutually exclusive.  He was born in 1924, a first generation American. A picture of Karl Marx hung in the living room of the home on Sherman Avenue where he grew up.  Like many of that generation, his politics became his religion; a politics rooted in a concern for those on the margins of a society filled with poverty and discrimination.

Yet his was also a generation in which Jewish culture flourished.  Yiddish was his parents’ first language and Jewish foods were his normal fare.  Surrounded by Jews, living in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, you could not take my father for anything other than a Jew, even though the religion played virtually no role in his life.

I idolized my father.  He died when I was 20, leaving me the enormous task of trying to capture and preserve that which made him such a special man.  At a time when each generation becomes more generically American, I realized that an essential part of preserving what made my father so special was preserving his Jewishness.  And the only way to preserve that Jewishness was through the religion.

Jewish culture flows from the religion.  Brilliant, acerbic, neurotic, confrontational, emotional and intensely self-aware: these words describe both our religious rites and our behaviour in society.  One can fashion the culture - or at least a 21st century version of it - from the religion. Lose the religion and the culture becomes schtick. Who we are as Jews - whether or not we think of ourselves as religious - is defined by our faith.

On Yom Kippur, I asked each of us to consider what we would do if the cost of becoming a Jew in American were to become more expensive.  I considered that cost in terms of money, inconvenience, and social isolation. I did not raise the issue of safety because I believe that America’s culture of pluralism and religious tolerance is such that the systematic demonizing of Jews is unlikely to occur here - at least in the next decade or so.  But I did not consider the impact a random act of anti-semitic violence might have on our perception of our safety here. Now we must consider that too.

The issue is essential for us because America offers us a no-cost solution to the problem of the high price of being Jewish: assimilate and disappear into the crowd.  It is a solution of which literally millions of American Jews have availed themselves.

This is what really frightens me about what happened in Pittsburgh.  I do not fear for my own safety when inside the shul. I feel I have a responsibility for your childrens’ safety when they are with me in the building for Hebrew school.  And I feel that we collectively have a responsibility to acknowledge the reality of anti-semitism and take the necessary steps and make the necessary plans to protect ourselves and our property should such an event occur.  But I do believe there is a long distance between one who harbors anti-semitic views and one who grabs a gun and starts shooting. And I believe we must not become captive to our worst fears.

But at a time when we are working so hard to build our community, I am afraid that there are those who will look at this event and see it as one more cost attached to the choice of being Jewish.  And they will ask, is it all worth it?

The community we are trying to build here is not one in which membership checks off the “Religion” box on the questionnaire.  We are trying to build a community in which being a Jew is essential to our identities. The changes we have made in our practices - the study, the religious school, the reimagined services, the Shabbat dinners, all done in a space that is intimate and friendly - are done with the hope of stamping a Jewish identity on each of us which is as strong as the one my father carried.  

The greatest gift each of us possesses is the gift of being Jewish.  Being Jewish attaches us to a tradition that revels in life: in its joys, its heartbreaks, its contradictions and its struggles.  To immerse ourselves in our Judaism is to immerse ourselves in the holy task that is living - living for ourselves, living for those we love, living for our ideals, living for our dreams.

What price would you put on that?  What cost is too much to pay for that?

What happened last Shabbat in Pittsburgh is a horror.  It is an unspeakable tragedy for the families and for that community.  For the rest of us, it is a reminder. It is a reminder of the price members of our faith have paid for that faith.  And, more frighteningly, it is a reminder that we have yet to be asked to pay that price.

We can, of course, walk away right now and possibly never fear having to pay it.  So long as Judaism is just a religion to us, that option will always be there and it will become increasingly appealing as the price of being labelled a Jew gets higher and higher.  But for those of us whose identity is intrinsically tied to our Judaism - those like my atheist father who could never be anything other than Jewish - what choice have we but to carry on?  And we will carry on. We will carry on with a heightened sense of our vulnerability. But we will carry on nevertheless, with love, with hope, with determination and with joy.

Bruce Alpert