I echo the words of the Psalmist, imo anochi b’tzarah—I am with you in your sorrow. I join the voices of the people of Pittsburgh, Jews and decent people everywhere, in pain and distress over the events of this past Shabbat. Imo anochi b’tzarah, I am with you in your sorrow, and can add little to the words of grief that have poured forth over these past days.
Let me turn, then, to a different pain that lurks behind and beyond the brutal end of the 11 victims. While in the death of innocents I feel only anger and sadness, in this other agony I sense solace and purpose.
The pain I speak of is the feeling You do not Belong. This was the message of the perpetrator of Saturday’s crime, the idea he wished to promulgate to Jews everywhere. You do not Belong. This has been the cry of anti-Semites in every century, in every country around the globe. It is the rallying cry of bigots and xenophobes, haters of every sort who seek to marginalize, isolate, intimidate, expel, and eliminate those they perceive as different.
As Jews, we have been endowed with a special sensitivity to the feeling of otherness. In the story of our origin, which we have been reading in synagogue over the past weeks, we are told that our ancestors Abraham and Sarah were not natives of their homeland. While God designated the Land of Israel to be the eternal home of the Jewish people, the first Jews were immigrants, migrating from Ur of the Chaldeans (modern day Iraq) to set down roots in what was to become the Land of the Hebrews. God’s plan was deliberate: He chose to imbed in our national psyche the experience of being foreign, of being different, of being the “other.” In so doing, the Almighty ensured that Jews forever would always have a special awareness of the notion You do not Belong.
This sensitivity is reinforced by Jewish law and experience. The Torah commands (Deuteronomy 10:19), “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Our experience of being foreigners in Egypt set the paradigm for the Jewish Diaspora, where we found ourselves to be strangers in many lands, always fighting for our right, and the right of others, to feel a part of the society in which we lived. The lessons of our historical experience have motivated our people to always be at the forefront of defending the “other,” fighting for civil rights, diversity, tolerance, and making others feel that They Belong.
The attack in Pittsburgh was an assault on both the body and soul of our people. It reawakened in us our ancient anxiety that there are those who still believe We do not Belong. And yet, in this, we find our hope and purpose. The response to this tragedy has been an outpouring of resolve that we—and every minority, and every individual regardless of religion race or creed—belongs. This week, I have been inspired from within and without. This coming Sabbath has been designated Solidarity Shabbat, where all Jews are enjoined to attend synagogues of their choice in solidarity with the Jews of Pittsburgh. By attending services we are making the statement We Belong; we declare our right, and the right of all people, to live and worship as we wish. I have also been buoyed by the support from outside of the Jewish community, from expected and unexpected places, individuals and groups who have declared that We Jews Belong alongside Canadians and Americans of all nationalities and ethnicities.
Inclusion is at the heart of Akiva’s mission and message. Our message to every student and family is, and has always been, You Belong. The kindness that we promote and expect in our classes and halls is the idea that all must feel that They Belong. This week more than ever we stand behind our value of inclusion: at our school, in our homes, in our synagogues, in our country. Let our credo of You Belong be our cri de coeur for a better world for us and our children.