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Planting Seeds for a Tree of Life

by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.

It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy. I have been holding, clinging, but this week, I have not been happy. I’ve been saddened. I’ve been broken. Branches of our Tree of Life have been broken. They have been snapped off of the tree. There has been no happiness.

I am reminded of the imagery on the tombstones in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. The image of a broken tree symbolizes the sudden end of life, a life cut short before its time. The Jewish people’s tree has been broken.

This past Saturday in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, in a congregation where I spent much time during my years as a USYer and USY advisor, in a congregation where three friends of mine have grown up and have become rabbis themselves because of the inspiration from the Tree of Life and what it represents, reality came crashing down.

It is not shocking to me when I hear of an anti-Semitic incident. What happened in Charlottesville last year was a stark reminder that anti-Semitism exists. The multiple incidents over the past five years, in cities like Beachwood, Ohio and Las Vegas, Nevada where motorists would roll down their windows as they drove by me and my children on a Shabbat morning to hurl anti-Semitic insults and vitriol at us, have done nothing but teach us that not only is anti-Semitism present, but it is increasing.

While not surprising, it is frightening.

An article in Education Week this past Wednesday, entitled The Slaughter in Pittsburgh is Horrifying. What Can Schools Do to Prevent Another? had some shocking statistics. Among them, thirty-one percent of adults, and forty-one percent of millennials don’t even know basic facts of the Holocaust; they cannot name a concentration camp or a Jewish Ghetto. State standards differ from state to state regarding Holocaust education, only ten states have Holocaust Education Requirements. Tennessee is not one of them.

The only way to break the cycle is to look at the Tree of Life and to plant more seeds. An often-cited story from the Talmud, found in Taanit 23b, teaches the story of Choni the Circle Maker. One day Choni was traveling on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man, “how long does it take for the tree to bear its fruit.” The man replied, “seventy years.” Choni further asked him, “are you certain that you will be here in seventy years to enjoy its fruit?” The man replied, “I found carob trees that were already in this world, whose fruit I have enjoyed; as my forefathers planted those trees for me, so too do I plant these for my children.”

We are planting seeds. But we are not alone in tending to our seedlings.

Those seeds are being planted by so many across our community and across the country. The Pittsburgh Steelers held a moment of silence before their game against the Cleveland Browns this past Sunday. Players from the team attended the funerals of brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal. On Tuesday evening the Pittsburgh Penguins wore patches on their jerseys in the shapes of a Jewish Star with the Penguin logo in the middle and the words “Stronger Than Hate.” After the game, the jerseys were auctioned with proceeds to support the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and a fund with the City of Pittsburgh Department of public safety to benefit officers injured at Tree of Life. You can bid on the auction through noon on November 13th by clicking here.

Communities across the country are holding vigils to mark what happened in Pittsburgh, with faith leaders from every different religious group imaginable showing their solidarity in the fight against hate. Our own community in Memphis came together this past Sunday evening. Rabbi Micah Greenstein from Temple Israel so eloquently shared that “Anti-Semitism will only lessen when those who are not Jewish end it.” He then asked those from other faiths to rise, because it is their “voice and presence that brings comfort and is an important reminder that Jews are not alone in fighting hate.” The shear number that rose brought chills to my bones.

A friend from my involvement in USY, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun from the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, originally from Pittsburgh and son of a retired Tree of Life Rabbi, wrote on Facebook and for the Times of Israel, “When people experience trauma, the sudden realization that they are not alone triggers deep emotions, that people they had forgotten about cared enough just to show up.” Berkun goes on to describe the ceremony that took place in Pittsburgh on Sunday evening, “The ceremony was what the community needed. It began with an acknowledgment of who was there, from interfaith clergy to local and national elected representatives, members of the administration, and high level officials from Israel. The underlying message was clear – this was a monumental attack of epic proportions. It was a game changing anti-Semitic hate crime….

“I was touched to see the comforting gestures going both ways. Sometimes my father would comfort others, sometimes others would comfort him. In the middle of the service, when the local Imam was talking about how many thousands of dollars the Muslim community raised for the victims, an African American Christian priest who was a Police Chaplain reached for my father’s hand. She didn’t’ shake it but instead held it for the rest of the time we were on the stage. It made me cry like everything else I experience today.”

We are not alone; however, it takes crisis to precipitate action. We have had crisis. The question is not if another anti-Semitic incident will happen, it will. The question is what can we do to lessen those instances? What can we do to plant seeds, outside of our own garden, together with others, to lesson the amount of hate that exists?

I do not have the answer. I do know what my goals are as I search for it. I want to work to bring our students together with students of other faiths and backgrounds, to learn together, to grow together, to lead together. I want us all to #ShowUpForShabbat, a campaign by the American Jewish Committee encouraging people of all faiths to visit synagogues, temples and shuls this Shabbat, to as AJC CEO David Harris says, “ensure that love triumphs over hate, good over evil, unity over division.”

This week we read Parshat Chaye Sarah. The parsha begins with Sarah’s death by talking about her life. Abraham is the first to eulogize a loved one. He spoke about Sarah’s virtues and the life that she lived. Eleven souls knew the importance of attending synagogue. It was an essential part of their life. Let us all honor their memories by living for them, by attending services, by connecting with our community and by working to plant seeds of hope, love, community. That will surely fertilize our Tree of Life.

Please keep these individuals, their families and the brave First Responders some of whom are still recovering from the injuries, in your thoughts and in your prayers.

Daniel Stein, 71
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Berniece Simon, 94
Sylvan Simon, 86
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69

May this Shabbat bring us peace, in our hearts, in our souls and in our lives.

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