American Jewry at a crossroads

Perhaps what hurts most about the Pittsburgh tragedy is that the massacre took place in a sanctuary, which literally connotes a safe shelter

A POLICE barricade around the synagogue that was the site of the Pittsburgh massacre (photo credit: REUTERS)
A POLICE barricade around the synagogue that was the site of the Pittsburgh massacre
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As spring dawned on suburban Boston in the early 1980s, I rolled down the window to enjoy the fresh air. Waiting at a stop light, I believed something had hit my mother’s car. I heard a “clink” sound several times, until finally something small and shiny whizzed through the window and landed on my lap.
It was a penny.
As I examined the coin, I suddenly noticed a school bus pull away as the light turned green at the crossroads. In the bus’s windows were children pointing and laughing at me.
Until I was literally hit by the penny, it didn’t hit me what had just happened. The laughing youth on the bus had hurled pennies at our car, at me in fact, because we were Jewish.
I had just recently started wearing my yarmulke at all times in eighth grade. That day, however, this public demonstration of faith became a target.
There were not a lot of yarmulke-wearing Jews in Needham, Massachusetts, back then. As soon as I adopted this new daily ritual I noticed quickly that I received puzzled stares  and giggles as I walked away.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised because I had grown up experiencing my share of antisemitism. Most of the time it was veiled, like how my Boy Scout troop would hold its potluck dinners on Yom Kippur and the first night of Passover. After too many scheduling “accidents,” I got involved in my synagogue youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY) instead.
The most overt expression of antisemitism was when my father’s competitors in the ice business told people not to buy his product because it was “Jew ice.” Years later I still find this insult nane and, well, cold.
None of these painful experiences could hold a candle to what my ancestors experienced in Russia. After the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, my great-grandfather fled for America, where life was supposed to be different. He didn’t move his family halfway across the world for opportunity, he came because he didn’t want to be a target anymore.
But this projectile prejudice represented a new low.
Staring at that penny in my trembling hand, I was faced with a decision about how to proceed. With the support of my parents, I became determined to keep wearing a yarmulke, for I believe then and now that I have the right to express my faith publicly, like any other citizen. Equally important, I had faith that the world was changing for the better.
And for many years this faith in American society has been rewarded. It’s not uncommon to see yarmulkes in Boston or in New York, where I live now. Jewish achievements abound: Our country has had a Jewish candidate for national office and Jews make an impact in all aspects of American life, from arts and academia to sports and culture.
AND THEN, just over a week ago, a madman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 innocent souls. Perhaps what hurts most about the Pittsburgh tragedy is that the massacre took place in a sanctuary, which literally connotes a safe shelter. In the exact location where every Jew should expect to feel spiritual and physical peace, a terrorist gunned them down.
Tragedy frequently brings a society together. We can certainly be emboldened by the vigils around the country. However, threatening, antisemitic graffiti has desecrated synagogues from coast to coast, namely in Irvine, California, and in Brooklyn, New York. Further, intolerable hate is unlikely to go away, let alone to go into hibernation.
This horrific act in Squirrel Hill also haunts us because it is a violation of a promise by our very first president. In America, Jews will not just be tolerated; we will be free. In the United States, all citizens will be able to practice their faith without fear. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, our houses of worship will not need be fortresses.
Over the past few days I have wondered whether George Washington’s vision for our country has become nullified by multiple heinous acts of hatred and rhetoric emanating from our capital city named for him. As houses of worship consider how to protect themselves like their counterparts in Europe, America sadly feels more like an experiment in democratic freedom rather than the shining city on the hill.
I have worn my Judaism on my sleeve and on my head for nearly 40 years. Now, for the first time since that penny landed on my lap, I question whether my yarmulke has made me a target of more than just pennies from misguided children.
In his book, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy D. Snyder outlines two conceptions of history he calls the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.” The former optimistically holds that as human civilization moves forward, a better future awaits us. By contrast, the “politics of eternity” darkly espouses that historical patterns repeat themselves over and over again.
At the moment Snyder’s conceptions of the future represent a crossroads for our country and the Jewish community. Can our society make tomorrow better than today, or are we destined to relive trauma, generation after generation?
Frankly, I am not sure which way our society is headed. Yet despite the risks of antisemitism, I will not retreat from our guaranteed civic freedoms after Squirrel Hill. To do so would be to turn my back on the great sacrifices my immigrant grandparents made to reach these shores, and it would contradict our Founding Fathers’ faith about what America stands for and what it still can become.
The writer is a rabbi and the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.