Faith, Unity, and Love in the Face of Fear
I am proud to be Jewish — and today, I went to synagogue. A vicious anti-semitic attack, personal neo-nazi threats, horrific targeted hate speech, violent white supremacy, and spiking hate crimes against Jews cannot stop our people from existing, from believing, from praying, from gathering, from worshipping on Shabbat or any other day.
I woke up in Palm Springs, planning to go to temple for my grandfather’s yahrzeit — and then horrific news broke of the shooting at the Temple of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which has now claimed eleven peaceful, beautiful, innocent lives (may their memory be a blessing). I wept. I hurt. I cried out. And I got into my dress, put on a Star of David pin, and drove to a shul nearby.
The first three entrances were locked — and then I found a large wooden side door slightly ajar. I walked inside and reached for a prayer book; the words on the binding read “Eitz Chaim,” which directly translates to Tree of Life, the name of the synagogue where the unimaginable events took place this morning. I proceeded to the sanctuary, where I saw seventeen people sitting in silence; I was the eighteenth person — a sacred, auspicious, spiritual number in our faith. 18. Chai. Life. Our blue and white flag stood on the bimah alongside a Jewish pride flag, whose rainbow colors shined brightly. Light beamed through stained glass windows with familiar symbols — a lulav and etrog, Sefer torah, kiddish cup, Chanukiah, shabbos candles.
The Rabbi then began to sing, our voices rising in unison with the same tunes I had sang alongside my grandparents since my earliest of memories. He asked us to raise our hands to our chests and focus on breath, feeling our owns heartbeats as we prayed for our brothers and sisters going through unfathomable pain and suffering in Pittsburgh today, ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza, endless war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and those in need of healing far beyond.
A woman asked if I would join her to open the arc — and so it was. The Rabbi handed me the Torah as he pointed to his siddur. I turned around with the holy scroll in my arms, closed my eyes, and sang the Shema before the congregation — and before my grandfather in heaven on the anniversary of his death. I then walked the aisle joyously with the Torah in my arms, so everyone could reach out and kiss it. People, almost all in their seventies and eighties, beamed and mouthed Shabbat Shalom and Yasher Koach. My eyes filled with tears.
I returned to my seat and followed the service closely, but could not stop looking at the Emergency Exit Only sign. Had anyone in the Tree of Life synagogue looked twice at the exit signs as they entered shul this morning? Did they know the best escape route? How could one ever begin to fathom the need to soon flee their house of worship? I turned around at every sound from the back of the sanctuary, where one large man had been standing ‘guard’ since shortly after I walked in. Toward the end of the service, he beckoned to the Rabbi. I strained my ears to hear, craned my neck to read lips — and the only words I could make out were “police” and “outside.” I winced. I breathed deeply. I bit my lip.
The Rabbi remained calm, so I forced myself to do the same, despite the fact that I could not get the Pittsburgh shooter’s words out of my mind: “All these Jews need to die.” The suspect wanted to kill Jews, any Jews, all Jews, our people, our tribe, our community, us, me.
But I continued to sing the songs, join the prayers, read the texts. I felt the unmistakable energy of Shabbat morning services and then saw these words: "Rise up like the sun over all humanity. Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas. And light up the universe with joy of wholeness, of freedom and of peace.” Light is the answer. Love is the answer. Proactivity is the answer. Faith is the answer. Unity is the answer. Tikkun Olam, Repair of the world, is the answer. Tzedakah, justice, is the answer.
As the service came to a close, the woman who had read the Torah came up to say that she thought she knew me. The Rabbi chimed in with how good it was to see me. But I did not know them, I am not from here, I have never before visited Palm Springs. “I heard you speak at Tel Chai in the north of Israel a couple of years ago,” she realized. Their daughter had been a part of bringing me to a college to share about activism on the other side of the world: in our shared homeland. And here they were, now welcoming me, far from home, as Jews have openly welcomed fellow Jews and humankind into their homes, houses of worship, and communities for millennia.
On a day that marks one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in the history of the United States, when I mourn the passing of my Jewish patriarch grandfather, as our country and world face toxic anti-Semitism and hateful divides, I found my tribe in the middle of a desert.