To live as a white, Jewish person in America is to live as a contradiction. On the one hand, there are the benefits of white privilege, and on the other there are the fears and discrimination of being a minority. Jews, like many minorities, identify with a long history of hatred and discrimination aimed at us just for being who we are.
Nothing exemplifies that hatred more than last Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where the lives of 11 people were stolen by an anti-Semite with a gun. Rather than offer a thoughtful and meaningful response, President Donald Trump made erroneous, victim-blaming claims that the worshipers should have been armed. If you only began to think about the necessity of security in Jewish spaces when you heard about the synagogue shooting this past weekend in Pittsburgh, you don't know the whole picture. Jewish spaces: synagogues, community centers, workplaces, often have security and armed guards. I worked for years at a Jewish Federation in New York which employed former military as guards as well as metal detectors in our lobby. And most synagogues will have guards on high holidays and at busy services. For better or worse, we are used to it.
Just like our society has become used to lockdown drills in schools, security in our religious institutions is something that we're used to but we shouldn't have to accept.
Hatred will always exist. Jews know that — and have throughout time. But what doesn't have to exist, what we can change, is the abundance of firearms available in our society.
On Sunday, nearly a thousand people, Jews and allies alike, attended a spiritual service at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Park Heights. Mourning, singing and joining in community was healing. Clergy and elected officials spoke. No one brought up gun legislation. As a Jew, as a person with a great deal of compassion and empathy for others, and as a person who sees that we are all one humanity, I understood this. And I know that for many, speaking on the topic of gun law reform can feel political. Nobody wants to seem insensitive in a time of shock and mourning.
Here's the thing: we need to talk about guns. The murders at Tree of Life on Saturday were political. So were the murders in Charleston, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook and too many others. My heart breaks at the growing list of tragedies. My heart breaks for the loss of life and the destruction of families and communities. My heart breaks because these tragedies were all preventable, but our leaders continue to choose to do nothing. What we can do is enact sensible gun legislation so that there are fewer guns in fewer hands in our society.
Anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred exist worldwide. It is only in the US — where we value guns more than people — that so many have died because of that hatred.
If there was ever a time or an issue over which to get political, this is it. We don't have to accept thoughts and prayers, we don't have to live like this, and we don't have to shy away from the political. Our leaders must end incitement and acceptance of hate speech. They have to work hard to change priorities so that guns are less prevalent and people's lives — no matter who they are — are more valued. We all are obligated to do this work together.
Jews understand our responsibility to "tikkun olam," to heal the world.
The Talmud, a Jewish text, tells us, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.” We won't solve anti-Semitism, racism, hatred, and bigotry but we can certainly try. And in the meantime, we can keep our senior citizens, our children and all of us safer with sensible gun legislation.
Some may say, in this moment, "We are all Pittsburgh" or "We are all Jewish." Those are kind words of solidarity, but we need more than solidarity. We need meaningful action to prevent those filled with hate and anger from so easily gaining access to weapons of war. We all deserve the freedom to worship, attend school, enjoy movies and concerts, and simply live our lives without the fear of facing down a gun.
Jessica Klaitman is a volunteer Community Outreach Advocate for Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, www.mdpgv.org.