This is the blessing said upon hearing tragic news, especially of a loss of life. These are the words for when there are no words. Despite the tone of certainty, this blessing really is a way to throw up our hands in grief. The words land hard after a tragedy like the murderous assault on the Chabad synagogue in Poway by a self-proclaimed radical white nationalist.
Before I knew all the details, I saw a post that Lori Gilbert-Kaye, of blessed memory, was a dear friend of the sister of a colleague I know well. We would learn later that she put herself in front of the rabbi, himself injured as the attack continued. So again, I have no words for this heartbreak. Other than Baruch Dayan HaEmet.
But this is not the time for silence.
This act was not senseless violence any more than Lori Gilbert-Kaye’s act was senseless sacrifice.
The killer, whose name I will not say, like those he was inspired by in Pittsburgh and in Christchurch, New Zealand, made clear his motives. He explained that he acted to defend the white European race, to guard the country from a flow of immigration orchestrated in great part by a Jewish conspiracy. Although, as in Pittsburgh, this white nationalist terrorist was somehow taken alive, he expected to die. Whereas the woman he murdered gave her life to save another, he gave his for the sake of killing others.
The specific danger of white supremacist nationalism runs deep in this country. A churning of hatred is fed by fear or resentment about Others coming to take something away, to dilute and even destroy something called the “Real America.” Nationalists, not committed to an American nation, but to the vision for a white nation reflecting their values of racial purity, monolithic faith, family uniformity. Virulent and now viral, whether old bigots or newly radicalized youth, these men have built their lives around the belief that they own this place and deserve to live here without the people they hate.
Too much time is wasted putting a political label on this hatred rather than zeroing in on how to fight it. The murderer in Pittsburgh attacked a synagogue he learned was hosting HIAS, a Jewish organization advocating more immigration. In San Diego, the murderer may well have struck Chabad because he, like countless others intoxicated with their hate, believed them to be pulling the strings of a president they see as too cozy with Jews and Israel. Either way, the targets vary across faiths and ideology. The perpetrators do not.
The gunmen and arsonists and vandals at black churches, synagogues, mosques, and Sikh Gurdwaras. The Militias at the border. The emboldened attackers of hated cultural, academic and political institutions. The deadly march in Charlottesville, where, as we know well, the chant was “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”
As long as there is any place or quarter in our country for the organized hatred of those who are Other, there will be permission, if not encouragement, to spread one of the oldest and most poisonous delusions about our people. Jews will never be the “Us” in a country that does not afford dignity to everyone.
Even as we watch the darkest acts unfold, we see rays of light that have rarely been seen. The first message I received after the news broke from Poway was from a Muslim woman I had only just met at Al-Farooq Masjid, the mosque that hosted an interfaith vigil for the slain in the Christchurch massacre. Many more have come in since from every direction and I, too, have sent broken-hearted messages of friendship along these same channels. The worst and the best of what we are capable of, side by side.
Will white nationalists be allowed to replace our dream of a nation of many creeds, backgrounds and identities? The work is urgent, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and we only have each other.
May comfort come to the bereft, healing to the wounded, and the memory of Lori Gilbert-Kaye be a blessing for all she touched. May there be no more occasions for condolences and only the exchange of solidarity and friendship between us.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. So may it be.
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah.