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Saturday, December 06, 2008

True Jewish feelings

By Joseph Aaron
(12/05/2008)

"Mommy, mommy."
Add that to the heartbreaking list of unforgettable words uttered by Jews throughout history.

A few years ago, it was "My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew and I am a Jew." Those were the last words journalist Daniel Pearl chose to utter, just seconds before he was murdered by terrorists.

Now, we have a new sentence to penetrate our souls.

"Mommy, mommy."

Just days after six Jews were murdered inside the Chabad House in Mumbai, India, a memorial service was held for the victims at the Knesset Eliyahu synagogue in Mumbai.

Among those attending the ceremony were Israel's ambassador to India, U.S. embassy officials, Indian Jews, aging Holocaust survivors, Israeli backpackers.

And Moshe Holtzberg, the two-year-old son of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, who ran the Chabad House and who were both killed in the attack.

It was during the ceremony that little Moshe cried out, "Mommy, mommy."

There was no one to answer.

And so Moshe Holtzberg joins the too long list of Jews whose entire life will be colored by unspeakable tragedy and pain.

I need to interrupt myself now because sadly, writing a column like this is all too familiar. For I have had way too much practice.

I have been working in Jewish journalism for more than 30 years and, alas, have written too many columns mourning the loss of too many Jews in too many crimes of hate.

Sadly, all of us, all Jews, are all too familiar with the aftermath of tragedy, know all too well how to respond, what to do. Prayer services and sorrowful sermons and community gatherings and fund-raising campaigns and talk of solidarity.

All of that is as it should be, and all of that demonstrates the strength and compassion of the Jewish community and the amazing connection that bonds all Jews.

But why must we see that, do that, feel like that, act like that, only in times of grief? Why must we do such good things only when things are bad?

In the wake of the Mumbai massacre, Jews have acted like Jews. We have put our differences aside, we have felt the pain of Jews very different from us, we have felt a sense of solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters. We have said all the right and good and meaningful things about doing more mitzvot and bringing more light into the world.

But why do we feel that way, respond that way in response to tragedy and not all the time, everyday?

Why do we not value every Jew, no matter where, no matter what, no matter how unlike us, every single day?

During the horror in Mumbai, seven Jews lost their lives. Alan Scherr, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Rivkah Holtzberg, Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum, Rabbi Bentzion Chroman, Yocheved Orpaz, Norma Schvartzblat Rabinovich.

We mourn them all. We ache for the loss of each. We pray that each of their memories be for blessing.

We don't focus on, don't care about what kind of Jews they were. Don't care that Alan Scherr was a spiritual seeker with some meditation place in Virginia, while the Holtzbergs were ultra-Orthodox Lubavitchers, and I have no idea what part of Judaism, if any, Orpaz and Rabinovich identified themselves with.

Who cares what kind of Jews they were. It doesn't matter.

They were Jews, they were our brothers and sisters, they were part of us. We mourn them because they are family, because each of us is truly diminished by the loss of each one of them. Alan and Gavriel and Rivkah and Aryeh and Bentzion and Yocheved and Norma, each a precious Jewish neshama.

Why don't we see that, feel that, act like that, all the time, when times are good, when there is no tragedy, just because. All Jews are our brothers and sisters no less when there is no bad news, when it's just everyday life.

I mourn the loss of these wonderful Jewish souls. I ache for their families and friends who survive them and whose lives will never be the same. I weep for little Moshe Holtzberg, who celebrated his second birthday the day after his parents were killed and whose parents were not there to celebrate that birthday with him and will not be there for all his birthdays to come.

There are many things we can do in response to the Mumbai tragedy, but I will leave it to the rabbis to guide us in that.

There are two things I pray the Jews of the world won't do in response to the tragedy.

I pray we won't get mad. I pray we don't get scared.

Sadly, that is the automatic reflex that too many Jews have when something like this happens.

We get mad, mad at the world, mad at all non-Jews, see the world as a hostile place out to get us. Feel it is just the latest proof of how hated we are, how under threat we are, how alone we are.

See how they targeted the Jews, we say. See how the Indian authorities wouldn't let the Israeli commandos move in. See how long it took for the raid on the Chabad House to take place. See how the world treats Jews. Same as it always was, same as it always will be.

And we get scared. See, Jews can never feel safe. See, Jews are always vulnerable. See, there is no one we can trust. See, disaster lurks behind every corner, it's just a matter of time until the next one.

We must resist those temptations, those responses. For they do us no good, for they, in fact, do us much harm.

Today's Jews live at an amazingly wonderful time to be a Jew. We have a sovereign state of Israel, strong and vibrant and open to every Jew everywhere in the world. We are respected and embraced in the most powerful country on earth, a country where a new president names Jew after Jew to high position and no one utters an anti-Semitic stereotypical peep. Jews everywhere on the face of the earth live in freedom and are free to be Jewish as they see fit. Our Jewish state has diplomatic relations with every single important country on earth, from Russia and China to the Vatican and Vietnam.

Too many Jews in too many places for too many years had to make the best of things. We, thank G-d, are blessed to be called to make the most of things.

If we get mad at the world, if we don't trust the world, if we are scared of life, if we feel ourselves threatened and under siege and vulnerable, we will retreat, regress, not advance, not progress. Not feel, as we should, confident to embrace and enjoy being Jews, not feel, as we should, secure to be as creatively and authentically Jewish as we can be.

And if we get mad at the world, if we don't trust the world, if we feel threatened and vulnerable, we will turn away our future, turn away young Jews who we would be giving no reason to want to be Jewish, be giving much reason to want to run away from being Jewish.

We cannot 'guilt' young Jews into wanting to be part of us, cannot scare them into it or force them into it. They have choices and when you're young, you want to connect with something positive and vibrant, not with something angry and scared, that trusts no one, fears everyone.

It is to desecrate Judaism, to deprive Jews of their birthright to portray being Jewish as something that makes one a target, makes one the object of hatred.

The glorious truth is that the era of pogroms and edicts and exiles and persecutions and restrictions and exclusions and expulsions is over. Over.

Yes, as the events in Mumbai all too vividly showed, that doesn't mean that bad things will never again happen, does not mean we will never again be targeted, does not mean we will never again suffer unspeakable tragedy. Jews will continue to give their lives just because they are Jews.

But we must see that reality in its proper context. See that we are no longer powerless, no longer helpless. Understand and feel and act knowing that now we are strong and powerful. Must see that the bad that comes our way does not change or diminish that.

We must not retreat, must not fear, must not get angry, must not despair.

Yes, we must mourn and yes, we must respond to what has happened. Respond by being better Jews individually, however you choose to define or do that, and respond by loving all other Jews, just as we so lovingly are able to when we lose some of our fellow Jews in a terrorist attack.

All that we have said to ourselves since Mumbai, all we have felt, all that our leaders have said and done during these horrible days, must not be forgotten as life inevitably moves on.

If, as a result of Mumbai, in your heart you felt love for Jews you did not know, Jews very different from you, if you felt tied to them in a way you can't describe with words, if you felt yourself very much part of the Jewish people, the greatest gift you can give to those who gave their lives is to keep feeling that way.

Every single day, for every single Jew, just because.

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