The featured image on this post shows a wooded area in Lasdon Park, a Westchester County Park near Katonah. The forest here was severely damaged a few years ago by Hurricane Sandy, but it is being repaired through a combination of human care and nature's force of life. Likewise, our social ecosystem has been damaged by violence and hatred, and it needs intensive tending and healing.
The pain of the second deadly antisemitic attack on American soil in six months weighs heavily on my heart. So too does all hatred or violence against those considered different: in recent days in our own country that included a Sikh family murdered in their homes, African American churches set on fire, and a man ramming a car into people because they "looked Muslim," sending a young girl to intensive care.
As Jews, our historic trauma of the Holocaust makes many of us see in recent attacks the signs of another era of antisemitism. And indeed, antisemitic actions have increased domestically and around the world. But the difference today is that the antisemitism is not coming from our own government, as during the Shoah, and also that it is not shared by most of American society. In fact, various studies have shown that Jews are the most liked and admired religious group in the country. We have so many allies, and much common cause with other groups, because (as I heard in a talk by Civil Rights activist Eric Ward) the white nationalist/supremacist hatred now directed so openly at Jews is the same one that threatens African Americans, immigrants, and other minorities. We should turn toward one another and support one another in our common goals of tolerance and diversity.
Our American gun culture is part of the danger. The inaction of leaders to curb weapons of war in our midst has led to a situation where mass shootings, whatever the motives, have become a terrible commonplace of American society. Americans are less than five percent of the world population but own over 40% percent of the civilian owned weapons. Although I grew up with a ranch in Texas where we kept guns, and understood that some neighbors hunted to put food on the table, I never expected a day where people would be allowed and even encouraged to keep military assault weapons in their homes. The terrorizing effect of these shootings has created an age of anxiety for schoolchildren, teens and adults. It has turned our houses of worship (especially for Jews, Muslims, and other minorities) into fortresses rather than open tents. Although solutions elude us, we can't give up.
But while common sense gun laws are important, they are only a start to repairing our social ecosystem. Every one of us has a part in healing the fabric of our society with kindness, love, and the building of community. While tens of people are killed in mass shootings each year (though each one of them an entire world!), about 20,000 use their guns to take their own lives. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have risen dramatically among young people in the last decade, and this shows a very damaged social system.
As a rabbi, I don't pretend to know all the reasons for this trend, but I believe that secularization and the weakening of community commitments contribute to the current fraying social ecosystem that isolates our young people. This applies to any religious group, although I can only speak for the Jewish community. A warm, values-based synagogue community for adults and families, and an active youth group to support our teens...these are not just extra-curricular activities to fit into our busy schedules; they are the very fabric of life and social support.
But today, many people look at the synagogue as a provider of service, seeing it with a consumer mentality rather than as a spiritual home. I believe that the ethos of Pleasantville Community Synagogue is to be a real community. And yet we are struggling against a tide of secularization and of busy lives that leave little time to come together in prayer and celebration. It is truly a sacred task to rebuild and reweave the strong fabric of our community together.
As we mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day, many of us feel shaken by antisemitism. But while recent events evoke our collective trauma, they should really awaken our collective resolve. To paraphrase the great sage Hillel:
If we are not for ourselves as Jews, who will stand up for us? If we are only for ourselves, then what do we stand for? And if not now, when?
May we find comfort as we work together to heal the the ecosystem of our society.
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.