By Rabbi Philip Graubart
“Look for the helpers.” That’s how we responded last time, six months ago when a white supremacist in Pittsburg shot up a synagogue on Shabbat. We – myself included – quoted Mr. Rogers and emphasized how supported we feel in the United States, with our many non-Jewish friends and neighbors; our government, faith leaders and intellectuals rushing to our aid.
We said it again, this week, both in the upper school and lower school, because, really, it’s true. The entirety of San Diego’s civic culture rose up, despising the killer and all he stands for, and supporting us. But with this attack, coming just six months after the last massacre, and in our backyard, there’s something insufficient, almost flimsy, about “look for the helpers” as our primary response. Yes, there are helpers. But there are also killers. We appear to be living through not just acute eruptions of anti-Semitic hate crimes, but chronic conditions. What do we do? How should we feel?
As it happens, thirteen years ago my brave and beautiful colleague Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and I discussed living with fear, on a Federation mission to Israel. He and several of our rabbinic colleagues had just led a moving Havdalah service in Jerusalem, where, among other songs, we sang Rav Nahman’s famous words “The whole world is a narrow bridge. And the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” I commented to Rabbi Goldstein the irony of chanting those words, at that moment. We had just visited our sister community in Sha’ar Negev, stood at the lookout where we could peer into the Gaza Strip, heard the stories of missiles – stories that would only become more alarming as the years went by. How, I wondered, can we expect Israelis living in the shadow of terrorist attacks not be afraid “at all?” Rabbi Goldstein responded that obviously it’s impossible to avoid fear. Even outside of a war zone, the world presents so many frightening phenomena. But the song’s true meaning is that we don’t allow fear to paralyze us, and dictate our essential identities. We don’t let it stop us from living as free Jews in our land. We don’t let it rob us of pride, or agency. We don’t let the terrorists win.
In one forum or another, this is what Rabbi Goldstein’s been preaching the past week. The Hebrew expression is ometz lev. The English translation is “courage.” In our blessed and privileged lives in America, we Jews have rarely been called upon to summon true ometz lev. But we’re the outliers in Jewish history. Our friends in Sha’ar Hanegev embody ometz lev every time they show up at school or work, and they’ve built a truly extraordinary, flourishing community. Many of our grandparents or great grandparents demonstrated super human courage while nurturing unbreakable Jewish identities.
The next few weeks will bring more obvious displays of security, more police, more metal detectors, more armed guards at our most sacred spaces. It won’t be pleasant. In fact it’s frightening. But, together, we’ll summon our extra portions of ometz lev, and we’ll pledge to build stronger and more vibrant Jewish institutions. Despite the fear. That’s the main thing.
Rabbi Philip Graubart is Chief Jewish Officer & Director, Advanced Institute for Judaic Studies, at San Diego Jewish Academy.