Thursday, October 3, 2019

Responding to antisemitism in America (adapted from sermon for the 1st day of Rosh haShanah, 2019 / 5780)


I began my sermon with a brief description of my trip to Pittsburgh this January to spend a shabbat filling in for Rabbi Jonathan Perlman at the New Light Congregation, which lost 3 congregants in the terrible Tree of Life massacre.

(If you are curious why I have chosen the spelling ‘antisemitism’ (uncapitalized and without a hyphen), see here.)

….Rabbi Perlman’s community, called New Light, used to have its own building, but a few years ago they sold their building and began to rent space from the Tree of Life synagogue. Rabbi Perlman says he had never heard live gunfire before, but the moment he heard the sound, he knew what it was and that he had to hide and get others into hiding. He was able to hustle the other three people with him at the front of the room into a safe area, an electrical storage closet behind the wall where the aron kodesh, holy ark is.

So in that storage closet, which was pitch-black because they couldn’t find the light switch -- were four people: Rabbi Perlman, who has high-school-age and college-age children, And 3 congregants - a woman in her 60s, a man in his 70s, and a man in his upper 80s.

Then there was a lull in the shooting. And Melvin Wax, the man in his 80s, because of his hearing loss, was not able to hear the others instructing him not to open the door. So he opened the door - and was immediately shot and killed before their eyes.

The gunman then entered the closet and fumbled around in the dark for a moment and then left, leaving Rabbi Perlman and the other two people in the closet alive. And the gunman proceeded to the Tree of Life sanctuary where he killed his remaining victims. (and we plan to remember them all by name on Yom Kippur.)

The New Light community lost several of the people who had been instrumental in every part of synagogue life. For example, Mel Wax of blessed memory had been leading Psukei Dezimra at the time when the shooting began. Two of the regular Torah and haftarah readers were also murdered.