On October 27, the Jewish community lost 11 of our own. In mourning the tragedy that took place at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s more important than ever that we understand what it means to be Jewish and what makes the Jewish connection so strong. It’s natural to assume that religion is the common thread that runs within each member of the Jewish community; however Jews express their faith in many different ways. Even with a common set of ethics and values, there are three distinct levels of religious devotion. Some Jews refrain from using their cell phones on Shabbat, while many Jews rarely—if ever—attend synagogue. Others believe that the Jewish people are bound to one another through culture. While many Jews express their Jewish identity through holiday traditions, a shared sense of humor, and an appreciation for matzah ball soup, the ways in which Jews express culture also differs drastically between communities. A Jewish sense of culture and religion surly creates a bond between us, but there is much more to being Jewish. What is it that truly makes someone Jewish?
The relationship that I have with other Jews is the same relationship that I have with my family. Like all families, we often argue and bicker with one another. When one member of the family accomplishes something special, we all feel proud. When a member of the family does something immoral, their shame is reflected upon all of us. Above all else, when one member of the Jewish family feels pain, their pain is felt in Jewish hearts all across the world. So when I think about the 11 congregants murdered last week, I think not of strangers but of brothers, sisters, and cousins.
The shooting that occurred last month not only reminds me of my Jewish identity but also of the Jewish story. Most people read the Jewish story and see oppression and prejudice. While suffering and marginalization are inextricably linked to the Jewish story, there also rests resilience and strength. Even when the darkest chapters seemed like they may be our last, Jews refused to let others decide their fate. When Jews wandered the desert as strangers for 40 years, the miracle of Israel was on the other side. When Goliath threatened to expunge Maccabee’s troops, little David slayed the giant against all odds. When 2/3 of Europe’s Jews were shipped in crates to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany and exterminated, we mourned and continue to remember, but we survived. The Jewish story is one of underdogs and survivors.
The next chapter of Jewish history will not be written by people who deny Jews the right to exist and worship in peace. The next chapter will be written by those who continue to pray on Shabbat, cook, and come together as a family. That’s what it means to be Jewish, that’s ahava. That’s our story.