This is the speech I gave at the Sarasota community vigil in memory of those who were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
I have never been to Squirrel Hill. I’ve never even been to Pittsburgh. I don’t know the three rabbis who serve the congregations in that building, and I had never met any of the eleven people who died there.
But 11 branches were broken off the Tree of Life this Shabbat, and today something inside of me is broken because of this unthinkable act, and I worry more for my people, and for our nation, than ever before.
I am not alone. There are two thousand of us here tonight, and many more thousands have gathered and continue to gather at vigils like ours. The brokenness in our hearts worsens at the news of every school shooting, and every time someone kills people at a concert, a night club, in a church.
And now, in a synagogue. We have long feared that this would come.
And it came with shouts of “kill all the Jews.” It came with on-line rants against HIAS, a Jewish organization that aids all immigrants and refugees. It came laden with fear and hatred and ignorance.
And my friends, the only way that we can overcome that fear and hatred and ignorance is to get up, get out, and talk to one another. To learn each other’s names. To discover the common threads that tie us all. To teach that differences are to be celebrated, not feared.
Broken places can be healed. A tree that has been wounded can still grow, especially if it is the Tree of Life.
The problem is that it feels as if the possibility of healing it is in the hands of others, of politicians who use language as a weapon, of fear-mongers who wish to stir hatred and sow dissent.
But we cannot allow that to be. It is upon us, in our hands, to change our nation, to become the beacon of hope and freedom that we have dreamt of. We cannot wait for the politicians to lead. It is up to us to be the leaders.
I am certain it is possible, and I know this because of three small things that happened over the past two days.
The first was a text from Pastor Glen Bell, of First Presbyterian Church. I had just gotten in my car after leading Shabbat morning services, and glanced at my phone. The text said: “Is there anything I can do to support you and Kol HaNeshama through the terrible news coming out of Pittsburgh?”
It’s how I learned that something had happened. And I learned it from a Christian whose first thought was to offer comfort and support.
The second was yesterday afternoon, when I stepped out of my apartment, away from the emails and phone calls and TV news, away from the grief and anger, into the sunlight. And looking up, I saw the American and Greek flags flying at half-mast over St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church.
When they decided to lower those flags, they did not know that a rabbi lived next door. They simply wanted to acknowledge that something awful had happened in a house of worship, and to show their caring and concern.
And the third was just a couple of hours ago. My phone rang and a woman’s voice, with a slight accent, politely asked if she could bring her children here tonight. She said she was from the Islamic Society of Sarasota Bradenton, and her kids are 12, 7, and 3.
I told her how happy I was that she wanted to bring her children to this vigil, in memory of people whom she had never met. I hope she came; we chatted about how long a 3-year-old can last at an event, at this time of night…. But merely wanting to bring her children, to teach her children? That was something.
Broken places can be healed, and the Tree of Life has deep roots. If we are willing to do the hard work, our words and actions can water those roots, can help the tree flourish once again. On behalf of those whose lives were cut short and with God’s help, we must.
POSTSCRIPT: When Rabbi Mike Werbow spoke later in the evening, he addressed that Muslim woman, saying that if she was there, his kids are about the same ages as hers, and were sitting to the right of the stage.
She and her kids did indeed make their way over and met the Werbow children, and Melissa Werbow invited them to her home for dinner. Someone grabbed me and pulled me over too, and I was able to give her a hug. In that precious moment, I felt renewed hope for our future and our childrens’ futures.
Phyllis Ohlstein said:
I am speechless! I wish I could have heard these words coming from your mouth…………….
Phyllis Ohlstein firstname.lastname@example.org
Elliana Goldberg said:
My maiden name is Olstein, family from Łódź Poland. Any possibility of relationship?
Barbara Shagrin said:
I’m enormously grateful to you for this beautiful speech. It has given me comfort and hope.