Reflection: Vigil and Vigilance for Community Action Against Anti-Semitism

Vigil and Vigilance for Community Action Against Anti-Semitism

This is a reflection by Heather DeMocker on the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the importance of community action for not normalizing hate in America.

The first time I realized I was “different” came a few days after I started kindergarten. A fellow classmate, on finding out I was Jewish, taunted me that I would burn in Hell. At the time I had no concept of anti-semitism, but I knew something was wrong. I retorted without skipping a beat: “Well maybe I’ll go to Hell in your world but in my world I won’t and everything is beautiful.”

It’s a painful memory now. What five year old should have to think about going to Hell? Why did I have to think about going to Hell because I was Jewish? I’m proud of my identity. Judaism preaches tikkun olam (repair of the world) and tzedakah (moral obligation of charity). We celebrate mitzvahs (everyday acts of kindness), no matter how small. I’ve always loved that we have an entire holiday, tu bishvat, dedicated to ecological awareness. Is any of this so bad that I should go to Hell?

On this past Saturday, October 27, the deadliest act of anti-semitism in United States history occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. Gunman and white supremacist Robert Bowers murdered 11 and injured 6 Jews attending morning Shabbat services. It is difficult to describe the spiral of emotions myself and other Jews felt both on that Saturday and in the days to come. Mostly I felt numb, and then intense pain. My people were murdered just because Bowers believed, and could act on his belief, that “all Jews must die.” It was a senseless act of hate and violence. The next day, I remember tearing up after work. Alone in the athletics broadcast office, I texted my mom: “Why am I so afraid? I don’t even know what I’m afraid of.”

Her response? “Events like yesterday’s should lead us, not to despair, but to political and civic involvement so we can affect change against hatred and bigotry, and for sensible gun control and mental health care.” We cannot let abnormal acts of violence become normalized occurrences.

Acting on my mom’s advice and in the footsteps of my friends at other universities, I attended the Monday night vigil on McKeldin Mall. The University of Maryland’s Hillel Center held the vigil in remembrance of the precious lives lost at the Tree of Life Synagogue. A close non-Jewish friend planned to go as an ally, and we went together.

Each of the vigil speakers echoed my mom’s words. Chabad Rabbi Eli Backman used the image of a havdalah candle to impress the importance of coming together. Unlike regular candles, which many student attendees held, havdalah candles are made of many intertwined wicks. Rabbi Backman urged us to use not only our individual lights, but also our collective light to “build a larger flame to push away the dark and the cold.”

Squirrel Hill native and UMD student Jake Hirshman remarked on the irony of the victims being murdered where they should have felt safest. They were murdered while praying at synagogue, in what many residents called a sweet and tolerant suburb. Hirshman’s depiction of Squirrel Hill sounded much like my hometown, with yard signs in English, Spanish, and Arabic all saying: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

Miriam Schwartz, a Hillel educator, said the shooting was a challenge to Jewish Terps like myself. A challenge to not only fearlessly live and be proud of our faith and culture, but also a challenge to unify ourselves with our fellow Terps to do good. She said, there can be no “us versus them.” There is no “us versus them.” There is only “us.”

Then the names of the 11 victims were read. The silence was so heavy, I had to lean on my friend to remain standing. Cecil Rosenthal. David Rosenthal. Irving Younger. Melvin Wax. Rose Mallinger. Bernice Simon. Sylvan Simon. Jerry Rabinowitz. Joyce Fienberg. Richard Gottfried. Daniel Stein.

Ari Koretzky, director of Jewish campus organization MEOR, also spoke: “while holding vigil is important, vigilance is even more so.” To me, that statement best summarized the evening’s theme. If this is our vigil, then what is our vigilance?

First, there must be more than performative allyship, both in support of Jews and other targeted groups. Some Facebook friends have added the “Together Against Anti-Semitism” banner to their profile pictures. I have too. While public awareness and support are first steps alongside vigil, public action must follow. Few friends, if any, have asked me how I am doing. I understand they may not know how to ask. My Jewish friends and I check in almost daily. I was deeply moved that my non-Jewish friend attended the vigil with me. With her support, I was able to partly relieve the emotional tax of the past weekend.

Second, we must unify as a collective “us” for positive change. As Schwartz and Rabbi Backman urged, we must come together as a unified light to support our intertwined struggles for peace. More guns and violence are not a solution. As Jews, we must embrace and support our African American friends after yet another violent attack on their community. In Kentucky, white supremacist Gregory Bush shot and killed Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones at a Kroger grocery store. Bush had unsuccessfully tried to enter a predominately black church nearby. May Stallard and Jones rest in peace and power.

Third, we must hold ourselves and our representatives accountable for creating the atmosphere in which this hate crime occurred. We cannot rely solely on our representatives to condemn acts of toxic bigotry. It is our personal moral duty to condemn anti-semitism and racism in all their forms. Someone is responsible for teaching those beliefs to the kindergartener who told me I would burn. Children, and people in general, are not innately hateful. Human prejudices are learned. In the words of my mother, we cannot normalize that hatred.

As the vigil came to a close, I again reflected on Rabbi Backman’s words: “Join with your neighbor, light your own candle, intertwine with others and together we’ll make a difference in the world.” Surrounded by hundreds of other UMD community members, both Jewish and not, I thought of my mother. Just as I found comfort in her words, each person here found comfort in each others’ presence. Each of us were standing up, physically and metaphorically, because we did not and do not accept the violence that transpired last Saturday. We refused and refuse to let it become normal. It is and shall continue to be our job to catalyze the positive change and peace we wish to see around us.

The last student-speakers led the crowd in “Oseh Shalom,” a Jewish song of peace and healing. I stood with my friend, her arms around me, as I sang along with hundreds of others, that collective us. Ya’aseh shalom. Ya’aseh shalom. These words I have known almost as long as I have lived. We sang quietly at first, until our voices found strength in each other. Ya’aseh shalom. Shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael. May we make peace. May we make peace.

About the Author: Heather DeMocker is an undergraduate studying Criminology and Criminal Justice, with a Law & Society minor. She also studied Sociology of Law at Universitetet i Oslo, in Norway. Besides writing for the Baha’i Chair Blog, Heather tutors inmates with the Petey Greene Program and edits creative shorts for the UMD Athletics Department. She hopes to attend law school and become a defense attorney with the Innocence Project.


Photo Credit: John Westrock Flickr via Compfight

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