I want to take a moment in a very busy week, to tell you a story about something that happened on Saturday…
I think perhaps you have been feeling lost this week, as I have. The events in Squirrel Hill hit many of us incredibly hard, in a season when we’ve been depleting ourselves, and trying to remain hopeful. Everything has been feeling supercharged for months, and we want to believe things might get better. But it’s hard to believe in much, right now. Surrounded by swastikas and voter suppression, stories of kids in cages and troops heading for the border. We’ve marched in the streets and knocked on so many doors, and yet still…
I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for two years, and then last Saturday, someone came along and beat me with a crowbar, but somehow I still need to find the energy and spirit to get to Tuesday. To canvas cheerfully. To hope. It’s been hard to find hope.
Anyway, on Shabbat this week we went to services at Congregation Bet Haverim, which is always uplifting and warm and friendly. In the best moments, it gives me real inspiration and steam to keep going, and on other days, it’s just reassuring to be surrounded by my community. But this week, something new happened.
To understand this story, you need to know that CBH sits in a very observant neighborhood, within the eruv. Toco Hills is the most traditionally Jewish neighborhood in Atlanta, and most of the synagogues/institutions there are Orthodox. It’s where you live in Atlanta if you need access to kosher groceries, and you want (need, really) to be able to walk to shul.
CBH is a different kind of synagogue for Toco Hills, and while I love being able to pick up kosher groceries when my dad comes to visit, or get a decent bagel, I will tell you that it’s a strange feeling to drive past walkers, as I leave the synagogue. Suffice it to say, there isn’t a lot of interaction between CBH members, and the larger Jewish community in Toco Hills (that I know about).
But it is one thing not to know the neighborhood, generally. And it is another thing not to know your next door neighbor. For years now, CBH has had a neighbor, a synagogue called Young Israel. There is a street that divides the two buildings, called Merry Lane, where we park, and though I have walked past the same faces many times down Merry Lane, I’ve never stopped to say hello. Never asked a name. I felt certain that these folks wouldn’t welcome my intrusion.
My own insecurities about my Jewish authenticity are legion, and I’ve spent decades navigating them in different ways. When you grow up an intermarried kid in the Reform world, it’s hard in one way. When you go to work for an organization like Hillel, or move to Israel, it’s another. When you try to call a mohel for the first time, it’s downright awful. I’ve always been drawn to observance and Jewish learning, and I’ve always been curious about the Orthodox world, but I’ve also had to assume that my interest and presence might offend some people, and so I’ve stayed away, out of respect. That extended to Young Israel.
But honestly, it’s been a sad thing for me. A tight little knot. Because I like people, and new faces, and learning…
So, getting back to Shabbat! On Saturday, during services, Rabbi Joshua Lesser told us all that we were all invited, after kiddush, to join him in the middle of Merry Lane. He explained that, in the wake of the devastation at Tree of Life, we were going to meet our neighbors, and mourn together. So we all shuffled out into the street.
When we got there, he and Rabbi Adam Starr lead us in thoughtful responsive readings. Both rabbis spoke about the shooting, and we chanted the names of the victims. We all sang, and joined arms, and swayed together. And that was powerful enough.
But then Rabbi Starr tasked us with a “foodless kiddish.” He said it was time to meet each other. And so we did . We wandered around, shaking hands, and saying hello. And it was deeply moving for me. These wonderful smiling people I’d walked past for so long. One man was fantastically warm and friendly, and when he heard that Mose’s bar mitzvah was a week away, insisted he was going to come.
I’m not sure I can say what that meant. And it doesn’t matter whether he attends or not. The simple act of showing support and interest. Of validating Mose. And through Mose, CBH. A recognition of our differences not needing to be a stumbling block to friendship and respect. I want to thank him.
I want to thank both rabbis. It healed me a little, after the wounds of Squirrel Hill. But it also healed me a little from the (honestly, self-inflicted) wounds of walking down Merry Lane for years, and turning away from familiar faces on the other side of the street.
There is nothing that will undo what happened in Pittsburgh. It is an atrocity. It is a wound, and it will continue to be a wound. It will continue to hurt. Just like there is nothing that will undo so many other harms in this world, including the political harms of the last two years.
But it was good to be reminded that out of harm and pain, we can learn and grow. In practical ways, these are the moments we have to challenge ourselves to make light. To find new kinds of goodness. Not because it fixes what’s broken. Sometimes, the broken thing is broken forever. But because we are still capable of making new things that are whole and strong.
And I think remembering that fact, believing it, and proving it to the world, is the best way to move forward…
Now, please, go and VOTE. But in doing so, remember to heal yourself (and each other) as best you can. In both ways, you make the world better.
It’s all connected.