There’s a scene in “The Godfather” where Michael Corleone goes to the hospital to see his gravely injured father. He’s shocked to find there are no police guarding the hospital and quickly engages Enzo, the baker, to stand with him on the hospital steps, trying to look tough, to deter bad guys from entering to finish the Don off.
I had a moment like that a few weeks ago, arriving at Congregation Beth Sholom for the High Holy Days service. The familiar Anchorage Police Department car that usually greets our members in the parking lot was absent. And it gave me an eerie feeling. A friend sent me a message the same day. “What time are the services?” she asked. “It’s not on the website.” I checked and sure enough, no time was mentioned on the synagogue website. I inquired about it and learned that Congregation Beth Sholom was advised not to post the time of its services on line for security reasons.
I could never have imagined that just a month after these two experiences I’d be reading about 11 fellow Jews in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill being gunned down as they prayed. The shooter arrived just as services started. What does this say about our country today? Do we really envision a nation where every church, mosque and synagogue must have armed guards for its services?
Last night I sat among people of every faith and race in my synagogue in my city, Anchorage. Muslims, Christians, a large contingent from the Salvation Army — all sat in solidarity with Anchorage’s Jewish community. The words of Anchorage’s First Lady, Mara Kimmel, urged healing, recovery and resilience. She reminded us that we Jews, given our history, must never stay silent when we hear racist language and calls to violence, and when we see the rights of others, especially immigrants, under attack. Had the United States not been open to our grandparents and great-grandparents, many of us would not be here as Americans today. And because America closed its doors to immigrants at certain times in history, like during World War II, some of our grandparents and great-grandparents ended up victims of the Holocaust, mine among them. Perhaps the most compelling moment of the evening, amid the prayer and healing words, was the presentation by Congregation Beth Sholom’s longtime executive director, Robin Dern. She told us this was only her second time in over 20 years with the synagogue to speak from the bima (stage), the first being the bat mitzvah of her daughter, Maddie. She was compelled to stand up because she grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Three of the victims were a part of her Pittsburgh childhood. She recounted the life events she experienced at the Tree of Life synagogue. Her sense of outrage at a hateful assassin gunning down worshipers in her and Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood was heartrending. She reminded us how small the world truly is. She reminded us that it’s gotten very unsettled and complicated in our nation.
Unsettled it is. And heal we must. I can’t help but think that Sen. Ted Stevens and his Democratic brother Sen. Dan Inouye are turning over in their graves at the level of partisanship and incivility that has gripped the United States of America. Robin Dern identified the slaughtered Pittsburgh worshipers as her heroes. America now more than ever needs heroes. Leaders who will work for the public good, respecting all points of view. We cannot continue to embolden those with racist, violent, anti-Semitic views to believe that taking violent action is acceptable in America today.
Alaska has led our nation as a proponent of civil rights for all in the past. We must hold to these principles more than ever today.