There were extra guards stationed outside my synagogue in Washington, DC this past Sunday. Their job: to protect children and parents on a charity walk through the surrounding neighborhood.
The adults held onto the kids a little tighter that morning as we strolled past houses with azaleas in full bloom, and waved at worshippers leaving Easter Sunday services at a nearby Greek orthodox church.
The little ones chatted about games, school and plans for the summer. Their elders looked on and smiled but were a bit preoccupied.
That’s because we walked the morning after another synagogue shooting — this one at the Chabad center in Poway, California.
The worshippers at Chabad of Poway were marking the end of Passover — a celebration of freedom — when a teenaged terrorist walked in the door with an assault-style rifle. He killed a woman who was a guiding light of the congregation, shot at the rabbi’s hands and injured an 8-year-old girl and her uncle.
It was a hate crime. The shooter — who was quickly captured — apparently was the author of a long anti-Semitic rant posted online. In it, he declared his admiration for the gunman who killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania six months earlier to the day.
Yes. To the day.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the rabbi at Chabad of Poway, began to speak out almost as soon as he emerged from surgery. He said, “Terror will not win. As Americans, we can’t and won’t cower in the face of senseless hate of what’s called anti-Semitism.”
He said he hopes to see synagogues full of congregants in the coming days, weeks and months. “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness. We need a lot of light now,” he said quoting an old Jewish proverb.
Truer words were never spoken.
In a subsequent essay published in the New York Times, Rabbi Goldstein underscored that message. He detailed the horrific events in his synagogue, noting “… after the massacre in Pittsburgh, we had community training.”
Training in how to survive a massacre in a house of worship.
We have seen these hate-driven crimes recently not just in synagogues and not just in America but in mosques in New Zealand and churches in Sri Lanka.
Everywhere, it seems, messages of love are threatened by purveyors of hate.
In Pittsburgh — my hometown — the wounds are still fresh. And yet hundreds have gathered time and time again in recent weeks in solidarity with the victims of hate crimes elsewhere.
There was a vigil after the New Zealand massacre and another after Sri Lanka. And when word reached Pittsburgh of the Chabad shooting, they gathered again by the Tree of Life building to offer prayers for the dead.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers — who survived the October 27th massacre — said “we stand here yet again at this corner as one united community.”
That is the essence of Pittsburgh — that feeling of unity, of people putting their arms around each other in times of both joy and sorrow and finding strength.
And now Pittsburgh has become a focus of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign.
Former Vice President Joe Biden held his first official rally of the campaign there — choosing a labor union hall on the Allegheny River for the big event. Surrounded by supporters in brightly colored union t-shirts, he made an appeal on both moral and economic grounds.
The packed union hall greeted him with cheers of “we want Joe!” He responded by saying that Pennsylvania is crucial: “If I’m going to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it is going to happen here.”
And with those words, Joe Biden — who was raised in the eastern part of the state — challenged the president on the very turf he turned Republican blue in 2016, hitting hard in a part of the country that provided Donald Trump’s margin of victory.
Biden said the president’s economic policies have helped the rich but not the working class, and that his lies and empty promises have done nothing to improve their lot. He also alluded to the hate crimes that seem to have become more common during the Trump presidency.
The need to stand strong against hate and unify the country — to reset its moral compass, if you will — was the theme of a brief video Biden released on April 25th in which he formally announced his candidacy.
In that video, Biden focused on the bloody clashes in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators. He recalled how the president said there were “very fine people on both sides.” Looking straight into the camera, Biden said Trump “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate, and those with the courage to stand up to it.”
The president shot back with a tweet about “Sleepy Joe” in which he questioned Biden’s intelligence.
Clearly, they are already getting under each other’s skin. It is almost as if the two of them have decided the general election campaign has already begun.
The fact is, there are still 19 other Democrats in the race for their party’s presidential nomination. All declared their candidacy long before Biden but at the moment he has the momentum.
A nationwide poll conducted around the time he announced his run for the White House had Joe Biden leading the pack of would-be Democratic Party nominees by a wide margin. Thirty-six percent of the 15,000+ people surveyed in the days leading up to the Pittsburgh rally said Biden would be their first choice to take on Donald Trump. Senator Bernie Sanders came in second place with 22 percent.
All this could change in the long campaign ahead and Biden, like most candidates, has certain shortcomings. He has tried and failed twice before to win the nomination… he is 76-years-old… and his politics fall on the center of the political spectrum at a time when his party seems to be skewing to the left.
And yet, his message is resonating, especially with those whose top priority is defeating the president. While his in-party rivals are focused on winning the nomination, he is concentrating on beating Donald Trump.
Biden is portraying himself as America’s “rescuer” — the man who can heal our divisions and calm our troubled souls.
The rabbi in Poway spoke of “a little bit of light pushing away the darkness.”
Joe Biden told the people of Pittsburgh — and hopes to convince the nation — that he can lead the way.