YOM HASHOA 5779
LESSONS FROM POWAY CA
I begin this morning as I began exactly 6 months ago on November 3rd—the Shabbos after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg—with the words of Psalm 19: Eyn omer v’eyn davarim (There is no speech and there are no words). What can we say? We’re all heartbroken, devastated by yet another synagogue shooting—this time in Poway California on the last day of Passover. The terrorist was a teenager—showing us that such hatred has reached our kids. As Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein later wrote: “He was standing there with a big rifle in his hands. And he was now aiming it at me for one reason: I am a Jew.”
This week’s Torah portion is ironically named Acharey Mot (After the Death)—referring to the death of Aaron’s 2 sons, Nadav and Avihu. It also comes in the wake of Yom HaShoa Ugvura (Holocaust and Heroism Day) this past Thursday. It occurred to me that what we were experiencing was somehow akin to the Holocaust experience with both its horrors and heroism—the horror of Jews being targeted for death and the heroism of a few brave souls in confronting it.
In Pittsburg the killer shouted as he fired his bullets: “All Jews must die.” In Poway, the killer yelled out why as he fired: “The Jews are ruining the world.” This has no place in America and this must stop!
I used to wonder how our synagogue can be more open and welcoming. Now I wonder how our synagogue can be more locked and secure. I used to hate the fact that to visit a synagogue in Europe or Latin America, you had to make advanced arrangements and walk past armed guards. Now, I’m afraid, this will become our new reality here in America.
My friends, the bullets were aimed at us all. We thought America was different—that this could and did happen in Europe, India, New Zealand, Sri Lanka or Israel, but not here!?? This happened on Shabbat—our day of rest! This happened on Passover as Jews were saying Yizkor, remembering their dead—some of whom died in the Holocaust! We used to think, “What safer place is there than in shul?”
In England in the year 1190, 150 Jews, trying to escape threatening mobs ran into the Tower of York. They were burned alive in that tower. The Nazis took this a step further as they would sometimes gather Jews into a synagogue and burn it down. Let me share with you a story told by Rabbi Avi Shafran (“Elijah and the Burning Synagogue,” Tablet Magazine) about his father.
In 1939 my father (Simcha) was a 14-year-old living in a Polish town called Ruzhan…all of Ruzhan’s Jewish townsfolk fled just ahead of the advancing Germans. That Friday, they found themselves in a town called Govrova…
The refugees had all been taken in by Govrova’s Jewish families. My father and his parents and siblings were lying on the floor of their hosts’ home when they heard angry banging on the door and shouts of “Raus Jude! Raus Jude!”—“Jews, out! Jews out!”
At the points of bayonets, they and all the Jews were herded to the town’s market square. The men’s beards were shorn off to humiliate them…The Jews were ordered into the still intact shul, and the building’s doors were blocked from the outside.
The scene inside was a blizzard of shouting, wailing and praying—a cacophony of wrenched hearts. My father, like all the trapped Jews, heard the sound of the fire growing louder, and realized that there was nothing any of them could do, and prepared for the end. And then came the miracle.
How else to describe it? The imprisoned Jews standing near some windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building. A German officer—apparently of high rank—dismounted and began to speak with the SS men guarding the makeshift crematorium. The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis. After a few minutes, [contrary to Nazi practice] the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving their good fortune, the previously doomed staggered out.
No one knew what the officer had said, but his sudden timely appearance convinced them that he must have been Elijah the prophet, who, according to Jewish tradition, never died and often appears in disguise to help Jews.
These human “brands plucked from the flames” were ordered to march across a nearby brook. And there they sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the shul in which they had been imprisoned…burned to the ground.
Because of this miracle Simcha Shafran survived and became a prominent Rabbi in Baltimore, while his son Avi has been the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America for 25 years. He’s also a prolific writer whose columns are syndicated and have appeared in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal. Who knows how the survivors of Chabad of Poway will now contribute to this world, now that they have survived? If their rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, is any measure, their contribution will be significant.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein has really been super-heroic. After getting shot in both hands, he refused to go to the hospital and wrapped his hands in a tallis as he helped evacuate the children. When he returned, the shooter was gone. He got up on a chair and with his index finger gushing blood and dangling from his hand he shouted with all his might: Am Yisrael chai (The Nation of Israel shall live)! Do not fear and do not faulter because Gd is protecting us, and we will survive and we will grow, and we will get stronger and stronger. For thousands of years there has been Holocaust, genocide, pogroms. Anti-Semitism has risen again in America, but no terrorist will take us down. No darkness, no evil in the world will take us down.
One of the congregants—Almog Peretz, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces—ran to help get the children to safety and took a bullet in the leg. His 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan, took some shrapnel in her leg. This family had come to America from Sderot, Israel, where Hamas’ constantly bombarded them with of rockets and kite bombs to feel safe—only to be wounded in America.
Just then—as in the story of the Nazis and the synagogue—a miracle occurred—the terrorist’s gun jammed. 2 more heroic congregants—Army veteran Oscar Stewart and off-duty border patrol agent Jonathan Morales—rushed him and he fled.
Lori Gilbert Kaye, a wife and mother, had recently lost her mother and she came to synagogue that morning on the last day of Passover to say the Yizkor memorial prayers for her. Now we will be saying Yizkor for her as she was left brutally murdered. Some reports have it that she was shot trying to protect Rabbi Goldstein. Lori’s husband Howard is a doctor, and when he heard the shooting he ran to help the wounded. He performed resuscitation on his wife not knowing it was her. When he saw her face, he fainted.
At the funeral Lori’s daughter Hannah said that Lori was known for baking challah every week and putting them in the mailboxes of other homes…My mother thrived and lived her entire life for the sake of friendship, to give flowers to people… My mother raised me to…give to all people, to love all people.
Lori’s husband Dr. Howard Kaye said: When a community member couldn’t pay their medical bills, it was Lori who made sure it was covered. When a friend was battling an illness, it was Lori who would drive her to and from appointments and treatments. Rabbi Yonah Fradkin, Executive Director of Chabad of San Diego County, summed it up best: “There was one sacrifice chosen—the purest person.”
How long, ‘O Gd, how long will we have to endure the scourge of anti-Semitism and hatred? 10 years ago, I had thought anti-Semitism almost dead. Now we see it all over Europe, especially on the left with its increasing tolerance of anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes. We see it here even in the sacred halls of Congress. This past weekend on top of the Poway shooting, we saw it raise its ugly head in the pages of the New York Times—America’s newspaper of record. Bret Stephens, in his column in the New York Times (4/28/19) writes: As prejudices go, anti-Semitism can sometimes be hard to pin down, but on Thursday the opinion pages of The New York Times International edition provided a textbook illustration of it. Except that The Times wasn’t explaining anti-Semitism. It was purveying it.
It did so in the form of a cartoon…in which a guide dog with a prideful countenance and the face of Benjamin Netanyahu leads a blind, fat Donald Trump wearing dark glasses and a black yarmulke...Here was an image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of [the Nazi] Der Stürmer. The Jew in the form of a dog. The small but wily Jew leading the dumb and trusting American…The cartoon checked so many anti-Semitic boxes…
There are legitimate ways to criticize Trump’s approach to Israel, in pictures as well as words. But there was nothing legitimate about this cartoon.
The ensuing apology was noticeably week. And amazingly, seemingly to make sure the NY Times got their point across, it published a 2nd anti-Semitic cartoon!? HonestReporting then tweeted: “We can only conclude that The New York Times is deliberately giving the Jewish community the proverbial finger even while it apologizes for its other cartoon.”
Synagogues all over the world are today more filled, rather than less filled. We will not cower and run away. I suggest each of us should find a way to show our Jewish pride—more than ever. Put a mezuzah on all your doors. Wear a kipah proudly this week wherever you go. Add a mitzvah you’re not currently doing—whether it’s wrapping tefillin, lighting Shabbos candles, refraining from non-kosher foods. If you’re not a “regular” at shul, resolve now to come to shul at least once a month and show the world that your shul is filled with vibrancy, love and life. Be a proud Jew!
We Jews are frequently told that we are white. Obviously, they haven’t been to our shul. Yet no other people in the history of man has been targeted for so long, and in such numbers, by those who stand for white supremacy. Anti-Semitism knows no logic. The victims of Pittsburgh and Poway were slaughtered simply because they were Jews!
We are a remarkable people, and we live in a remarkable country. Sure, there are anti-Semites—always were and, I suspect, always will be! Anywhere and everywhere! As we read a couple of weeks ago at the Passover Seder: B’chol dor vador omdim aleynu l’chaloteynu (In every generation they rise up to destroy us). But there has never been a country that has been as good to our people as the United States of America. So we as a people must stay strong; we as a country must remain optimistic and not give into despair.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein—whose index finger was blown off and who very easily could have been killed—suggests we ask ourselves this question: I, who was blessed with life, health, an intact body, all my fingers, arms and legs; I who was blessed with all my faculties and gifts—how will I sanctify Gd’s name in my life? How will I use my arms and legs, my fingers, my eyes and ears, my mind and heart and all my other tools and resources to bring more light to the world, to be a more committed Jew, to inspire and educate everyone I come in contact with? Rabbi Goldstein added: That is what I pledge to do with my borrowed time. My friends, this is how we translate the Poway Passover story into our lives. May we be ever inspired be Rabbi Goldstein’s example to do so. Amen!