Sermons

Honouring Pittsburgh

Last Shabbat I stood at this very pulpit, and remembered the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin 23 years ago this week, by a fellow-Jew determined to put an end to Rabin’s Oslo Peace accords. That murder took place in an atmosphere of fevered nationalist rhetoric. Last Shabbat, after 13 pipe bombs were sent in the post to prominent democrats and critics of Donald Trump, I stood at this very pulpit and said:

‘Make no mistake, there is a direct line that leads from stoking up violent language, blame and accusation to an atmosphere that gives permission to extremists to act in violence.’

Little did any of us know, that just hours later, a 46 year old white man, would storm into The Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, and shoot dead 11 members of the community at prayer, wounding others, including 4  police-men.

This week’s sedra, Chayei Sarah, opens with the death of Sarah, and Abraham’s preparations for her burial. Little did we imagine that, this week in Pittsburgh, the funerals of 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the States would be taking place.

The shooter hated refugees and immigrants. He used the same language used by President Donald Trump in describing them as ‘invaders’. He was fixated on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s efforts to resettle and advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. This Jewish organisation has sought to help refugees since 1881, beginning with Jews fleeing Russia.  HIAS had organised a National Refugee Shabbat, and this enraged the shooter.  He later told officers, ‘I just want to kill Jews,’ and ‘all these Jews need to die’.

In comment after comment this week, a direct line has been drawn between the atmosphere of violent discourse in the States, stoked by President Donald Trump, and the murderous act of the Pittsburgh shooter, motivated by hate. In the words of Michael Haden, former head of the CIA and Homeland security, who himself grew up himself in Pittsburgh and knows the Jewish community there well: ‘Look, I’m not going to claim cause and effect between things the President may have said or done, and what happened Saturday night, And certainly he grieves like an American, and as a grand-father of Jewish grand-children. But the President’s rhetoric, and others, I should add, have moved the centre line of acceptable American political discourse in a darker direction, and that has given people who should have been beyond the fringe more legitimacy, as the centre line is moved.’

Last Shabbat was the darkest day in American Jewish history. The worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered because they were Jews. They were dentists, doctors and teachers; kind and respected stalwarts of their community, not one of them under 50. Bernice and Sylvan Simon had their chuppah at the Tree of Life, and had been married for over 60 years. Daniel Stein, 71, along with Melvin Wax and Richard Gottfried, made up the ‘religious heart’ of the community, helping the rabbi with anything that needed to be done to hold services. Rose Mallinger, 97, was a much-loved member of the shul and a proud grandma and great-grandma. They were typical members of any Jewish community anywhere and everywhere. They could have been members of SWESRS. Kind and respected stalwarts of the community. In the words of Jessica Weinberg Neiss, a member of the Squirrel Hill Synagogue, now living in London with her family, ‘That was everybody’s shul.’ We are one people, one family. And this is why an anti-semitic attack against Jews in Squirrel Hill Synagogue, Pittsburgh, is an anti-semitic attack against each one of us. An attack against each of us as individuals, and an attack against all Jews as a People.

What can be our response to such an outrage? How can we honour the memories of those who died? From Paris to Brussels, from Toulouse to Copenhagen, after every anti-semitic attack against our People, the response to Pittsburgh has been the same across the world: defiance, solidarity and unity. We show up and come together, as Jews are doing this Shabbat across the world, in response to the call #Show up on Shabbat. On Monday night, in partnership with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, JW3 hosted a vigil attended by over 200 and watched by many more by live stream. The Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn, the Ambassadors of America and Israel, the heads of all the main Jewish denominations in this country, all showed up to speak out against hate and to show solidarity and support with the Jewish community.

On Wednesday night a service of remembrance was held at ELELS, our Liberal neighbours, and attended by members of all 3 local Progressive Jewish communities. The service closed with the recitation of verses from the Qu’ran by friends from a local Moslem community. We know that hate crimes against the Moslem community in this country far exceed hate-crimes against the Jewish community. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Moslem brothers and sisters in standing up against all hatred and racism. Yesterday we received a letter of support and solidarity from our local MP, Wes Streeting. Today we are honoured to welcome Redbridge Council’s Community Cohesion Co-ordinator, Yusuf Patel, who is here to express our Council’s support and solidarity after Pittsburgh.

What can be our response to such an outrage? How can we honour the memories of those who died? We  determine to carry on doing what we always do – celebrating simchas like Alfie’s Bar Mitzvah today, carrying on helping refugees, carrying on being Jews and living Jewish life as we have for the past two and half thousand years. We refuse to live in fear.

At Monday night’s vigil at JW3, the Community Security Trust’s executive director, David Delew, assured us that the risk of an attack to the Jewish community here in the UK has not changed after Pittsburgh. It didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. We are already on high alert. But he urged us all to ‘play our part’; for each one of us to take responsibility for the security of the Jewish community. To be vigilant. And to sign up for our own synagogue’s security team. This morning, I put out a plea to you. If there is any fit and able man or woman in this community who has not yet signed up for our security rota, please contact the SWESRS office to do so. Our continuing security lies in our own hands.

What can be our response to such an outrage? How can we honour the memories of those who died? We speak out against hatred, racism and discrimination wherever we meet them. For each of us is created in the image of God. An anti-semitic attack is an attack against us all, Jew, Moslem, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, whatever our faith, ethnic background, colour, gender or sexual orientation. May all our words be words of kindness, of love, and respect. May all our actions partner with the Holy Source of All in bringing Peace to our homes, to our communities, and to this world.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu ve’al kol Yisrael, ve’al kol ha’olam. Ve’nomar Amen.

May the One who makes peace in the highest, make peace over us, over Israel, and over all the world, and let us say Amen.