We Have Been Here Before

Remarks from the Tree of Life Vigil

We have been here before. Hatred is not new to the Jewish community. It is woven like a dark thread through the warp of Jewish history. Today we stand broken hearted, cradling the memory of our brothers and sisters from The Tree of Life Congregation. Each one of us has a different connection to that tragedy, but we all share in the horror of such an act of cowardice. If your reactions are like mine, then you, too, have felt shock and horror, frustration and rage, and, certainly, a dose of fear.

We have been here before. We have buried the victims and mourned our dead, and we have stood arm in arm, lifting each other up as we stumbled and were steadied by our neighbor, only to steady them in turn.

We have been here before. The storytellers of our nation tell us that between the First and Second World Wars, immigrants streamed into our country, fleeing from the chaos in Europe. They looked different, spoke different languages, and had different beliefs. As a result, our nation retreated into nativism, isolationism, ultranationalism, and xenophobia. Anti-Semitism grew along with all sorts of “anti-otherism,” as those already in this country tried to lock the door behind them.

We have seen this before, with laws enacted, crosses burned, and martyrs involuntarily selected.

With this latest act in a long history of hatred, we may be tempted to feel unique among the hated of the world. But we must remember one message above all: We are not alone. The hatred toward us is not only toward us. We heard the words of that evil person as he set to his evil work: “All Jews must die”—but that was not all. We learned the source of his hatred is because we help immigrants. We often talk about these as senseless acts, but we are wrong. There was sense and meaning and purpose to those events. We were targets, not only because we are Jews, but also because we support the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, which helps new arrivals in our country to find their place and become active, contributing citizens. HIAS was founded in 1881, when our grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents fled to this country to escape widespread anti-Semitism that was officially sanctioned by many governments in Europe. HAIS helped our ancestors to survive and make a life here and contribute to the welfare of this country. When we came as immigrants, HAIS make sure we were not alone. And HIAS has continues to help those fleeing oppression. As Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, has said, “We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

We must understand that this was not only attack against us. This was attack against anyone who is “other,” who is foreign, who is frightening, who is unknown, who speaks different languages and whose skin is of a different hue: Central and South Americans in caravans, Muslims seeking asylum, Hattians fleeing a country flattened by disaster, and more. On this Shabbat, Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Sylvan Simon, Bernice Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, the victims of this attack, were unwillingly sacrificed because we choose to help them, because we were them and we never forgot the lesson of what it felt like to be them. Because we help to make them, us.

We have been here before and we are here again, but we are not alone.

We are not alone because there are others who feel the sting of hatred.

We are not alone when other members of our faith community stand with us. Before our service, my friend Reverend George Daisa of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church reached out to share his support for the Jewish community and to share the dis-ease that some of his parishioners feel in their religious home on Sunday morning.

We are not alone when Salma Kabli of the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley made it a point to send the mosque’s statement condemning anti-Semitism and offering the center’s support.

We are not alone when our local government stands with us, including Thousand Oaks City Council member Claudia Bill-de la Peña, who specifically reached out to express her support for the Jewish community. I know that are others from our local government and from other houses of worship here; please know how much your support means to us.

We are not alone when our police department actively works as our partners in providing support and protection for synagogues and other houses of worship.

We are not alone when we stand together, not out of fear but out of resolve, because when this tide of anti-Semitism subsides, as it will, the waters of hatred will still swirl around many in our country and in our community. At that time, then, we will do what the Jewish community often does. We will look to those who are vulnerable, those who are “other,” and we will stand with you. When we are here for each other, we are not alone.

-Rabbl Barry Diamond, Temple Adat Elohim