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To Our Community

Dear friends,   The news of the shooting at Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday morning is devastating. Along with, I’m sure, all of you, I send out prayers of healing to those who are suffering, and prayers of comfort to those who are mourning. While this moment may seem precarious, I am confident that by coming together as a unified Jewish community, both locally and globally, we can all find the strength and support we need to get through this.  

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Here at Temple Beth El, the Board of Directors continues to focus on the security and safety of TBE’s members and of our building. We are working with the United Jewish Community and the Secure Communities Network to monitor the situation. Nonetheless, we remain vigilant. The TBE Board will use this time to review our congregation’s security arrangements. Our current security environment includes 24-hour security cameras and police-summoning hot buttons in case of emergency. As an additional precaution, we will be instituting the practice of locking the entry doors after all services, meetings, and classes begin.      

Perhaps the most valuable thing we can provide each other as a community is companionship and friendship at moments of darkness. Today many of us may experience feelings of sadness, brokenness, and despair. We may need someone to listen to us, to spend time with us, to simply help us not feel alone. If you are wrestling with your emotions today, I encourage you to be in touch with family, with friends, with fellow members of our community, or to reach out to me. Being heard by others who know where we’re coming from can be a powerful way to help us process our emotions when we’re in distress.  

In Deuteronomy, we are told to ‘choose life.’ Traditionally, Judaism views this as an emphasis on experiencing, praising, and celebrating the things that happen to us in the world. We eat, we drink, we learn, we love, we pray, we pursue justice, and we care for and help others, because that’s what we find in life, and we choose to have a positive relationship with so much of it. When we are confronted with evil, as we were yesterday, we’re given the opportunity to choose life in several ways. One is to stand up and fight for who we are, and for what we know to be right in the world. As 21st century North American Jews, we are the inheritors of a millennia-old tradition that defines so much of who we are and how we operate in our lives. From when we worship, to how we praise God, to many of our most fundamental values, Judaism is at the core of who we are. It is our responsibility and our privilege to educate others about our way of life, and to help them be aware of who and what we are and aren’t.   

Another way for us to choose life is to choose to continue on with our lives. Last night, I attended the Virginia Peninsula Jewish Film Festival, a program sponsored by our congregation, and I was pleased to see many members of our community out at that public Jewish cultural event. There was strength to be found there in shared perspective, experience, and community. I spent this morning at our religious school, where attendance was above-average, and our students, teachers, and parents, gathered together to share the special community we call TBE School. Sitting in the Sanctuary with our K-7 graders as they sang Psalm 150, Mi Shebeirach, and Oseh Shalom, my heart and soul were filled with comfort and warmth. The joy that can be found in our way of life was alive and well here at our synagogue today, on a morning when many of our students sat outside for half an hour after school, not wanting to leave.   

As we stand up for and proudly continue to go about our way of life, I am encouraged to know how many of our neighbors here in Williamsburg are expressing support for us. In the last 24 hours, I have received countless messages from non-Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and friends, sharing messages of condolence, and wishes for wholeness and peace. Communities are strongest when different groups live in real relationship with each other; when that doesn’t happen, minority groups like us can become labeled as foreigners, as ‘the other,’ which often leads to the kind of targeted stigmatization and hatred that resulted in yesterday’s tragedy. I believe that a public discourse that embraces hatred and oppositionalism feeds that kind of thinking, and is highly dangerous to all of our souls. I also believe that one of the most effective ways that each and every one of us can combat that kind of thinking is by building and developing relationships with those who are different from us. This is the reason why I have been involved with the formation of HART – Historic Area Religions Together – a group that hopes to build bridges between practitioners of different religious traditions by bringing them together for social, cultural, educational, and holiday programming. This kind of work has never been more important. I am certain that the most effective way to address the corrosion of otherness, the destructive divisiveness that has brought our nation to this point when terrible incidents like what happened in Pittsburgh yesterday are not unheard of, is to bring different people together to remember and experience our shared humanity. Creating shared sanctuary should be one of our highest goals as a community.   

To that end, I am involved in planning a Community Multifaith Vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree Of Life Synagogue. It will take place at 7pm tomorrow (Monday) evening, in the Sanctuary of our friends, the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists, located at 3051 Ironbound Road. It is not being held at the synagogue in order to accommodate more guests than our Sanctuary can hold. The entire Williamsburg community is invited to join us as we mourn the victims of this tragedy.   In addition to those in Pittsburgh, I am deeply aware that all of us are both suffering and mourning right now. Clearly, these feelings of suffering and experiences of mourning will manifest differently for each of us, and we will all likely experience a myriad of emotions in response to this event. I was leading Shabbat services yesterday morning when a congregation member who lives close to the synagogue ran into the building to tell us about what had happened. My first reaction was anger – an intense feeling of indignation that someone would do that to our people. Then, as I stood at the Bimah throughout the rest of the morning, I experienced fear – fear for our families and our community, fear that this kind of act could so easily find its way to our door, fear for what this could mean for the American Jewish community, fear for what might come next. For a short time after that, my mind was clear, filled only with the certainty that we should not be manipulated into changing who we are and what we do, that significantly altering our lives because of this monster’s actions would be a way of giving in to hatred, of allowing those who hate us to win. As the afternoon and evening moved on, and as a new day dawned this morning, I continue to feel all of these things and so much more, often all at once. As with anyone who is suffering or in mourning, the only reasonable response to this complex web of emotions is to not judge or have expectations about whatever each of us is feeling, but to make room for any and all responses – to allow ourselves to feel, and to grieve. May we all experience the comfort that we most need at this difficult and challenging moment.   If you have any questions or concerns about any matter related to yesterday’s tragedy, please don’t hesitate to contact me, our congregational President, George Podolin (gpodolin@gmail.com), or any member of the Board.    

Shalom uvrachot – peace and blessings,   Rabbi David Katz 
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