One of my friends reached out to me after Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh. He had noticed a police officer outside of the Slifka Center that evening, an unusual sight. I am from Charlottesville, Virginia. When I mentioned that my temple hired an armed guard following “the rally,” he responded, “What rally?” The American collective memory is short.
It is not my friend’s fault: nationwide, the Unite the Right rally has been buried beneath a year of other sufferings. I am now able to introduce myself as a Charlottesville resident without getting an inquiring look. But at home, the wound has not healed. 98 of the top 100 Google Image results for “Charlottesville” come from those 48 hours. The Confederate statues have been unshrouded but are ringed by orange mesh. Flowers often line Fourth Street, now named Heather Heyer Way in honor of the innocent woman killed by a white nationalist. To Charlottesville residents, Charlottesville will never again be just a beautiful town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The stain of hatred and violence will never come out.
We are only a little over a year removed from Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, when Nazis and white supremacists came to Charlottesville to rally, spreading hate and fear. That weekend, my temple’s Shabbat service was cut short by Nazis with assault rifles threatening the temple’s front gate. Worshippers had to be rushed out of the back door.
Since then, the first thing I do in a religious service has been to look for the emergency exit. It is a reflex, my way of reckoning with the time in which we live. While we do not live in the early 20th century, not in Poland, Germany, nor Hungary, not in the Roman Empire, not in the age of the pharaohs, it sometimes sure feels like we do.
This weekend, I returned home for my youngest brother’s Bar Mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for Jewish 13-year-olds. The service began at 10 a.m. — at the same time, just a few hundred miles north in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, another Jewish family came together to celebrate the birth of a child. For us, it was a joyous weekend: a long overdue reunion of family and friends from all across the country. For those in Pittsburgh, joy turned into grief and agony at the hands of a gunman who slaughtered 11 people while they were praying.
In the course of the service that day, Jewish people around the world read from the same episode in Genesis. Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his wife’s maidservant Hagar, was left alone in the desert. The text says that God heard Ishmael’s cry and sent an angel to save him. But nowhere does it say that Ishmael made a sound; commentators believe that Ishmael cried silently and God responded.
As part of a Bar Mitzvah, it is traditional for the young man to share his thoughts on the weekly Torah reading. Interpreting the story of Ishmael’s silent cry, my brother said, “We should all hear the silent cries around us and respond. Goodness comes from good deeds.”
While the Pittsburgh shooting is certainly a hate crime, this phrase simply cannot capture the pure evil of murdering someone in their house of worship. Crimes like these are intended to turn us into Ishmael. They are intended to make us feel alone in the world, hopeless, voiceless and afraid. They are intended to force us to look for the emergency exits in our sanctuaries. In response, we must give those silent cries our ears and our voices. We must speak for those who no longer can, for those who no longer feel like they can and for those who could not in the first place.
Many of us will forget Squirrel Hill. What happens when people start asking “what rally?” and “what is Squirrel Hill?” and when individual events of hatred are forgotten? Time steals details. While each attack may fade, their messages must not be lost. Squirrel Hill reminds us that America is not immune to radicalism, to hatred or to violence. We each have a duty to hear the silent cry of the downtrodden. We must amplify these silent cries until they are no longer silent. Only those who bear witness, those who speak up, those who refuse to let others suffer in silence can drive out hate.
Max Krupnick is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .