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Our Enemies Will Not Defeat or Define Us

Our Enemies Will Not Defeat or Define Us

Construction paper rendering of a broken heart held together with a bandage

Once again, we mourn - in sadness, in anger, but not with surprise.

Acts of violence, hatred and terror affect us all, and they also happen in a particular place and time. Chabad of Poway lost a member of their community over the weekend. Their sacred space was defiled with a centuries-old hatred newly reinvigorated. The Jewish community mourns with Chabad, and together we will rise. Am Yisrael Chai.

Let us also remember that events like these do not happen in isolation.

Before the sun rose over San Diego on April 27 we were already in mourning - for the 250 killed in Sri Lanka, for the 50 massacred in Christchurch, for the 11 slaughtered in Pittsburgh, for the six killed in Wisconsin, for the nine gunned down in Charleston, and for too many others.

To treat these as isolated incidents, perpetrated by “lone wolf” terrorists or gunmen struggling with only personal demons, is to distract from the true complexity of the problem and absolve us from our collective responsibility to address it head on.

Religious and racially-motivated violence, animated by white supremacy and white nationalism, is on the rise across the world. Easy access to military-grade weapons makes mass violence motivated by these ideologies unforgivably easy. Extremism is everywhere, inhibiting real and productive conversation. Each of these problems intersects and overlap. We cannot address one without considering the others.

We know from law enforcement that the 19-year-old who murdered Lori Gilbert Kaye z”l at Chabad of Poway, also under investigation for the arson of a nearby mosque, believed that with the help of communities of color, Jews are attempting to ‘replace’ the European race. His hatred did not begin or end at the door to a synagogue. His hatred goes deeper - to the very root of the American consciousness.

White supremacist ideology, especially in the United States, teaches that Jews, black people, Muslims, anyone not of white Christian descent, are somehow lesser in their very humanity. Anti-Semitism is its own insidious brand of this type of hatred, but fighting this battle - truly fighting white supremacy - requires deep partnership across all communities affected (in addition to those that aren’t).

After Charlottesville, we resolved to remain, in the words of Zechariah 9:12, “asirei hatikvah,” prisoners of hope. After Poway, this same hope must continue our drive toward action.

We must continue our struggle for policies that will create life-saving gun violence prevention measures. The RAC’s work with NFTY helped spur the House of Representatives to pass the most comprehensive gun violence prevention measures in decades - this legislation now sits in the Senate awaiting a vote. And in California, our Reform congregations are hard at work urging Governor Gavin Newsom to add $39 million to the state budget for local GVP programs proven effective in the past. This work must and will continue.

We must continue to deepen existing, and create new, relationships across lines of faith, race, and difference - at the national, state/provincial, and local level. These relationships model the world as we know it should be, the world we are striving to create.

We must call on our leaders to continuously and vigorously denounce acts of terror, especially those animated by white supremacy. This includes educating the larger populace about the intersections and divergences of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, racism, and other forms of hatred. This is a shared battle, but we must also respect the particular history and experiences of different communities.

The Passover story reminds us that in every generation an enemy rises up to destroy us. These enemies do not define us nor will they defeat us. Am Yisrael Chai.

Our action continues right now. Here are four things you can do to make real change in the next five minutes:

Read statements, watch rabbis' news appearances, and find additional action items related to the shooting at Chabad of Poway.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
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