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A Seismic Shift for American Jewry?

Rabbi Mitch Malkus

Like Jews and other people all across the United States and the world, I was horrified and saddened when I learned of the news that eleven people had been savagely killed this past Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I have lived my entire life with the sense that Jews were woven into the social fabric of America in a manner that was different from the entire history of the Jewish people. This is not to say that I had not experienced anti-Semitism or that I was naïve to the virulent strands of white nationalism or the doctrines of neo-Nazism found in corners of the United States. It is a pervasive feeling that my Jewishness is completely embraced and accepted in the society in which I live. After Saturday, the Jewish community may have reached a seismic shift in how we view ourselves in the "land of the free."

That the tragic shooting took place in Pittsburgh has deep historic resonance for the Jewish community and for the future of Jewish life in America. It was in Pittsburgh (technically Concordia Hall) in 1885, where eighteen rabbis signed the Pittsburgh Platform, arguably the one of the most influential document for Judaism in the United States throughout the 20th Century. The Platform was seen by many as a statement of what Reform Judaism was. Beyond the denominational focus and the details of the document, it sketches out a vision that is optimistic, open to religious pluralism, and that confines Judaism to a belief system rather than to broader categories such as peoplehood and nationhood. In the view of its signatories it positioned Judaism as part and parcel of America. As they wrote, "[W]e deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evil of the present organization of society." The approach taken by its authors was embraced by the majority of American Jews, regardless of the denomination they may have affiliated with.

In the context of a Judaism that fits within the broader understanding of how faith works in America, Jews have flourished in the United Stated since the Pittsburgh Platform in ways unimaginable in the prior arc of Jewish history. This is not to say that the founding principles of America and the Constitution were not also vital to how minority religions function in the United States. Nor does it mean that Jews did not face significant discrimination and obstacles to full participation in society. However, from the time the Platform was written to last Saturday, Jews have lived and worshipped freely within America's own narrative of itself. In the approximately 125 years since, Jews have steadily integrated into every aspect American society.

The brutal murder of eleven Jews on Saturday in their synagogue may have shattered the very worldview Jews envisioned for themselves in modern day America. Anyone who has traveled to Europe and other countries with sizeable Jewish communities knows that those communities carry themselves very differently than American Jews. Seeing heavily armed guards and electronic security gates when attending synagogue or visiting Jewish schools outside of the United States is common. In the short time since the Tree of Life shooting, I have observed what appears to be the rumblings of a seismic shift in the Jewish community. People are questioning the place of Jews in America, the safety of worshipping freely and the security infrastructure that has been built. As America experienced greater numbers of gun violence, the Jewish community responded with increased measures. That was a response connected to broader societal risks, but after Saturday, the Jewish community appears to be reevaluating how it sees itself within the broader civic context of the United States.

My belief in the founding principles and the very idea of America is strong and bolstered by my personal life experience. The United States can rise above the vitriolic evil that led to Saturday's attack. At the same time, this assault on both the Jewish community and the bedrock concept of America is rattling American Jewry to its core.

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