Thoughts on Poway

In the week following the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, I had already communicated with the congregation twice, with a total of more than 1400 words. So why is it that I have had nothing to say about the shooting and murder at the Poway Synagogue?

I am not the only one who has been silent. In the days after Pittsburgh, numerous churches in our area reached out to us with expressions of sympathy and gifts of remembrance. We have not seen a similar response to this tragedy. Do our friends and neighbors care less about the Jews of Poway, California than they do about those in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? I doubt it. But I suppose they are asking themselves the same question I am asking: How many synagogues can be shot-up before we stop reacting?

And how do we react when such tragedy strikes for the second time? In the moments after Pittsburgh, I knew exactly the message I wanted to convey to all of you: חזק ואמץ - be strong and resolute in the face of such evil, for we are God’s chosen people and we have always paid a price for being so. In essence my message this time around would be the same. And yet I cannot escape the feeling that there is another message that needs to be delivered; a message that addresses the burning questions: Why is this happening? Will it happen again? Will it happen here?

I felt no real fear following the Pittsburgh shooting. I am, by no means a brave person, but of the dozens of things that scare me, random acts of violence are not among them. Its the random part of it this is my shield, so to speak. The sentiment “if it happens, it happens,” may strike some as either fatalistic or irresponsible, but that kind of sums up my feeling. And besides, I have spent thousands of hours of my life worrying about things that either have or have not come to pass. I just don’t seem to have the space to worry about this.

I basically still feel that way after Poway. But there is an element of fear that has crept into my thinking nonetheless. It’s born of the idea that those seriously disturbed people among us will look at Poway the way John T. Earnest looked at Pittsburgh and at the attacks on churches in Sri Lanka - as a defined trope for dealing with their hatred and rage. In other words, in the light of Poway, what happened in Pittsburgh seems a lot less random.

As to those burning questions, I have no answers, only my own stumblings. Much has been made of the anger and anxiety that seems to pervade our society today. And while that anger may well be the proximate cause of all this violence, it is, I believe, more importantly, a symptom of a greater ill that is at work. One of the things that our internet driven, interconnected world has made possible is communication without direct connection. We can post things on Facebook or Twitter, we can send messages via text or email without ever having to directly come in contact with another person. And how much easier is it to ignore another’s feelings, how much easier is it to reject someone when we never have to look them in the eye or hear the pain in their voice as we do so? That direct connection with others is one of the great moderating and civilizing forces that can shape our character. We are losing it. Our young people especially are losing it. And as they do, they grow more angry and more anxious.

I am not saying that any of this has anything to do with why Robert Gregory Bowers or John T. Earnest walked into two synagogues and took the lives of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger, or Lori Gilbert-Kaye. But I do believe that a world which provides us with multiple fora in which people can let loose their wildest fears and deepest resentments, and a world in which one can say something painful to another person without having to be a direct witness to the pain those words cause, is ultimately a world that will be more scary and less civil than anything we have known.

This, at least, a part of the challenge of the times in which we live. If it seems daunting, it is ours to accept anyway. No Jew can look back on the history of her people and see in the challenges of today something greater than that which her ancestors faced. So to those burning questions that we may ask ourselves in the wake of such a horror, for me, at least, their answers will remain hidden for now. And all that will remain is Moses’s charge to Joshua - חזק ואמץ - be strong and resolute, for “the Lord Himself will go before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)

Bruce Alpert