Fifteen years ago, when we built an extension to our historic Emanu-El synagogue, we decided to put a Jewish symbol, the Star of David, in a prominent place on the building. At the time a number of congregation elders, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, queried me about the wisdom of marking our spiritual home as a Jewish place. My response was that hiding does not make us safe. I believed then, as I do now, that knowing others and being known offers the best key to security. Guided by this belief, I sensed how important it was for our congregation to focus on translating sacred text into action. I advised that we needed to demonstrate to ourselves and to our neighbours how to implement Torah values and ideas of Tikkun Olam (world repair) through social action and social justice and how we needed to harness our talents, resources and values in support of other faith communities and organizations that were already doing this holy work.
The massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was the catalyst for a very emotional and intense response within my congregation. This horrendous event struck a deep and scary chord among Jews that resounded at the collective and personal level. It was a stark reminder that the ugly scary “elephant in the room” which takes up far too much space in the Jewish psyche, is active and needs tending. The elephant that dwells within the Jewish psyche is the memory of the Holocaust and the enabling anti-Semitism – an attitude that feels very present in our world today.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, I received on behalf of my congregation and my people countless emails, texts, and electronic messages from diverse faith communities, from Islam to Buddhist and the gamut of Christian expressions, all of them expressing their horror and sadness and, perhaps most importantly, telling us that they stand in solidarity with the Jewish people. I was not ready for the steady stream of visitors bearing bouquets of flowers and hand written letters, hugs and words of support. It was both amazing and overwhelming.
The Jewish Community deeply appreciates the support demonstrated by faith leaders, our Member of Parliament, our local Members of the Legislative Assembly, our police chief, and so many people representing the diversity of Victoria through their attendance at the Jewish Community Centre Memorial Service for the Pittsburgh victims and the Kristallnacht commemoration at Congregation Emanu-El. Those leaders came together and said that here in our city, in our province and in our country, we do not tolerate xenophobia and hate. They stood together with the Jewish community and affirmed the values of understanding and mutual respect.
Witnessing and experiencing the response that my community received after a horrific experience in another country on the other side of our continent was incredibly meaningful to me. I felt embraced, supported and empowered, thank you. When I asked some of the youth of my congregation if they feel safe, their resonating response was Victoria is a safe place, with really good, nice people. Resilience is about having the courage to transcend fear, reaching out to others, working with others towards social justice and doing your best to live a compassionate life.
Rabbi Harry Brechner is Rabbi of Congregation of Emanu-El in Victoria, B.C.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the TImes Colonist on Saturday, November 24th 2018