The `Tree Of Life’ Martyrs


As a born-and-bred Israeli, I often find myself playing down that Jewish-American identity within me. Not that I’m fooling anyone, but afternoons on the Israeli playground taught me that it’s better to claim the fact that I’m a second-generation Jerusalemite, or if we’re playing ethnicity, then to claim my Dutch heritage. But being an American Jew — that’s not something an Israeli would brag about.

American Jewry is a community Israelis rarely think about seriously, and especially liberal American Jewry. Until, that is, they are murdered for being Jews and for being liberal. And so – despite the fact that the pain and mourning are so fresh – I want to take a moment to reflect on the liberal American Jewish community, 11 of whose members died on Shabbat in sanctification of God’s name: martyrs.

Martyrdom. Sanctifying God’s name. These are phrases we tend to associate with Jews of medieval Europe under the Crusader sword, the persecution of Jews in Islamic lands, or prayers for the millions slaughtered in the Holocaust, mingles with our tears for the deaths of those killed in attacks in our beloved Israel. 

But not in North America. Jews don’t die as martyrs, sanctifying God’s name, in the U.S. And yet here we are.

On Shabbat now, when Jews in synagogues around the world return the Torah to the ark and sing, “It is a Tree of Life to those who uphold it,” we will recall the worshippers from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh who met death at the hour of prayer, forced to give their lives in sacred martyrdom.

To our sorrow, in the long history as a people, a community’s murder, its martyrdom, raises it up in our view to that status of a holy community. As the Shabbat prayer book says: “Av HaRachamim, Father of compassion, who dwells on high: may He remember in His compassion the pious, the upright, and the blameless — holy communities who sacrificed their lives for the sanctification of God’s name.”

Few Israelis see American Jewry as a holy community in that sense. Not like communities in Europe or elsewhere in the world that suffered persecution and martyrdom. To see a Jewish community as a holy community in this way is to accept its values as authentic Jewish values, its Judaism as one worthy of the name, a Judaism that the Holy Blessed One imagined in choosing us as God’s own people. A Judaism, a Jewry, in which a person is proud to be counted.

So maybe this is the right moment to say, as we face the pain in our hearts over the acts of an alt-rightist, drowned in the flood of lies that calls itself white supremacy, that the members of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh are a holy community, that its values are holy, and that we are glad to be called by its name and are proud of its work. And in their merit, we are proud to be Jews. 

Thus, even if it saddens us that this horrific act was what brought their actions into our hearts, it is still better to say it late than never: I am proud to be an American Jew.

Seeing people who labored for decades (in one case, 97 years), who saved and worked and gave, and who with their own hands and no public support built a Jewish congregational home and continued the tradition from generation to generation — then I am proud to be an American Jew.

When we are aware that this murder took place ten minutes after the beginning of the service, a time when the core minyan-makers were present, and think about how many congregations like theirs have sprung up in the last century in the United States — then I am proud to be an American Jew.

When we see a woman weeping outside the synagogue with a kippah on her head, and we think of the clarion call for equality that the liberal American Jewish community has given, and gives, to the Jewish people and to the whole world, then even if the Israeli style in gender equality differs on these customs, I am proud to be an American Jew.

When we watch the video of the community memorial gathering – interfaith in a way that is so Jewish and so American, and we understand that this is the Promised Land these people dreamed of for themselves and for their children, an American dream that is so very Jewish — then I am proud to be an American Jew. 

And when we understand that what motivated the murderer was that families in this congregation volunteered to protect immigrants and refugees to the United States, working with that magnificent organization, HIAS, and that they sought to fulfill the Torah’s most-repeated commandment — to love the stranger – even though the President of the United States thinks the ‘strangers’ are a threat — then I am proud to be an American Jew.

This is a time to inscribe these values on our hearts and to know that those martyrs were liberal American Jews. A holy community, sustaining traditions three centuries old of loving humanity and repairing our world, alongside love of their own people and of ancient Jewish tradition. A community with a magnificent history, and with a future that will yet astonish us all. A community from which we, as Israelis, stand to learn so much.

So in this time of complex Israeli-Jewish identities, a time when each of us contributes our own sweet and bitter elements to the crazy mixture that is Israeli Judaism, I’m proud to count myself among those descended from Americans, from that great liberal community. I hope to continue to uphold that Tree of Life that my ancestors planted in the soil of the United States, and here, in my home in Jerusalem, to continue walking in its ways; because its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is director of the Mandel Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture, and he leads the Klausner Minyan in Jerusalem.

This piece first appeared in Hebrew on Ynet; it was translated by Elisheva Urbas.