CEO Will Berkovitz’s remarks from the vigil for Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life Congregation on Monday, October 29, 2018. You can watch the full vigil here.
Your presence here tonight is an act of solidarity and of kindness. People are afraid. Afraid that our country’s light is dimming, our democracy is fading, that we are sliding back to 1930s Germany or some of the worst moments in the history of the United States. But there is a very big difference between now and then.
We are living in the now. The decision to act or be a bystander is our decision — in this time and in our generation. At this moment. It is not something abstract and intellectual. It is not beyond the sea. It is close to us. Here. Now. And at this moment we are each commanded to act with moral clarity.
The rabbis say, “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of their community and does not protest is held responsible for the sins of their community.” We must not be bystanders to what is happening in our country.
We will be held responsible, whether it is a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh or a black church in Charleston. Whether it is an attack on Jews or an attack on Muslims. An attack on refugees or an attack on immigrants or gay or transgender people. Attacking people for who they are, or who they love, is an evil. We have witnessed this over and over and over — hate speech leads to hate actions. We must call it for what it is and stop dreaming before it becomes more of a nightmare.
We must stop accepting the fantasy that this is just a few troubled individuals. It isn’t. Something larger is happening, and it is now upon us to respond. We must take our responsibility as citizens of this country as seriously as this moment demands. As seriously as did those who died so the sacred values of this country would endure.
The Hebrew word achreyut means responsibility. The root of the word achreyut is acher … other. The core of Jewish responsibility is taking care of our community but also looking beyond ourselves to take care of the other. The great sage Hillel said almost two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” If not now, when? Now is the time to be clear what we stand for and who we stand with — as individuals, as a community and as a country.
Guided by our history and our values, our community must always be a place of refuge and welcome for those who are viewed as other. We must always give voice to the silenced, isolated and forgotten. Our community and our country was built to be a “light unto the nations.” A refuge against gathering storms. And, we are here to ensure that light never fades. We are called to stand with those who are threatened. Those who are marginalized and those who are vulnerable.
If we believe we are to be a light unto the nations, we have to ask ourselves what exactly does it mean in this day — in this moment? It is worth noting that the Torah, the Bible, doesn’t start out at Mount Sinai or talking about the tribes. It starts with all of humanity before we were divided into an us and them — into clans and factions.
This sign was left in front of JFS this morning. It reads “Hate will not win. Your neighbors are with you.” And, this is how evil is defeated. By action and not indifference. By speaking and not silence. By being united and not divided.
Thank you all for sharing this sacred space and time with us. Your actions and words and compassion matter. Your presence with us matters. And most importantly, never forget that your life matters. You matter. Whoever you are, whoever you love, whatever your faith. You matter, and you are welcome here with our community.
We must have the strength to act. And to speak. And to show up. And to rise up, even if we are uncertain or afraid. In this moment we are called to live according to our highest aspirations and not our greatest fears. To remember and to respond — that is all — the rest is commentary.
Our eyes must stay focused not only on the now but also just over that great horizon where a commanding voice mixes with the voices of our ancestors’ and our descendants. And, those voices call upon us to respond in this moment. And, we must call upon them for strength and wisdom and faith.
The arc of history may bend toward justice, but it does so only because of our choices as individuals and our actions as a country.