The fatal shooting that claimed the lives of eleven members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago has left so many in our country shocked and devastated. It has eerie parallels to the church massacre that took place three years ago that took the lives of nine African Americans during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
On behalf of the Imago Dei Fund, my heartfelt condolences to all who lost loved ones at Tree of Life and our prayers and solidarity to our Jewish brothers and sisters, fellow human beings, neighbors, friends, co-workers, and fellow people of faith.
Like many, we are deeply disturbed by the rise of anti-semitic violence (that has spiked by over 57% over the past two years) and disdain for minorities and immigrants that has been walking out in bald form onto our streets and in our newsfeeds in the familiar clothing of nationalism and an eerie cloak of religiosity which is hard to watch. The killer barged into the sacred space of the synagogue while people were worshiping God with the venom of hate in his heart imbibed by the rising tide of both anti-semitism and the refugee work that Tree of Life was so involved in.
In my conversation with Jewish friends and colleagues after the tragedy, I was reminded of observations I have made over the past decade of the particularly values-driven tenor of Jewish philanthropy that I have glimpsed in places far and wide like Haiti, Cambodia, and remote places in Africa where there is barely a Jewish population but where the American Jewish World Service has a presence in the global development ecosystem. But until the Tree of Life tragedy, I didn’t know how deeply engaged Jewish philanthropy and activism was right here in the US living out one its core values: love and welcome of the “stranger in our midst”.
Depending on how much of the coverage you watched, you might not have connected the dots that this synagogue was attacked not only because it is Jewish but also because it is deeply involved in the work of supporting and resettling refugees fleeing violence and war. Shortly before the massacre, the gunman’s hate for not only Jewish people but also refugees and immigrants was proudly posted all over social media: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” In this tragedy, you see in vivid form the fatal intersectionality of two ancient stigmas rising to the surface of the American psyche today: anti-semitism (which has deep roots in Christianity) and fear and disdain of the foreigner.
I am proud to be part of a Christian faith community here in Boston that welcomes newcomers to Boston and lends support to refugees through Christian organizations like World Relief which, along with HIAS, is one of the nine resettlement organizations here in the US that is faithfully continuing to serve refugees despite dramatic cuts in funding and fear of being closed down all together. But there is something different about the tenor of Jewish philanthropy. There is no evangelism mixed in, no echoes of colonialism dressed up in religious clothes. Over the past decade or so of doing philanthropy, I have noticed and admired a number of Jewish women I have interacted with in women’s philanthropic settings who have this dogged commitment to the marginalized and a no-nonsense, practical yet holistic approach to alleviating human suffering that is embodied in the core value of Tikkun Olam which means “Repair the World”.
If you listened to the eulogies at the Tree of Life funeral and the news coverage afterwards, you got a window into what Tikkun Olam looks like on our own doorsteps and around the world: an activism centered on something so basic: being a good neighbor to “strangers” (aka “foreigners”) in our midst. As Christians, we share the same Bible and also have a core value of “loving our neighbor as ourselves” but our witness in the world right now (with many notable exceptions) seems to be falling into the same trap Christianity has fallen into throughout the centuries: getting more swept up with political power and tribal identity than our core spiritual identity as human beings who are all branches of the same Tree of Life and as followers of Christ who are called very simply to love our neighbor as ourself. The work of Tikkun Olam is all of ours and knows no ethnic, religious, or geographic boundaries.
I was just privileged to attend the Black Ministerial Alliance annual dinner last week and felt so lifted by the sense of solidarity, spirituality, and love in the room that made me feel the same Tikkun Olam I sense in my Jewish friends. They are leading a faith-inspired movement in Boston to care for not only their own but for their communities who are made of many races and nationalities, many who are newcomers to Boston. There are many wonderful Christian organizations in Boston, like The Greater Boston Refugee Ministry working in partnership with the Emmanuel Gospel Center, which are doing the work of Tikkun Olam.
So we too have some tikkun Olam in our Christian activism and philanthropy but we have much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters to center our spirituality and our do-goodism more firmly in this core Biblical principle which appears again and again throughout the Bible—love for the stranger in our midst—but which we have lost touch with, and as a result we have lost something so basic, our very humanity and which is at the core of what philanthropy is all about and is what truly makes any country great:
And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:19
You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:34
Do not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you lived as a foreigner in his land. Deuteronomy 23:7
You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners who dwell among you and who have children. You are to treat them as native-born Israelites; along with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. Ezekiel 47:22
In whatever tribe the foreigner dwells, you are to assign his inheritance there, declares the Lord GOD. Ezekiel 47:23
Philanthropy can have an elitist sounding ring in our ears but in its deepest essence it is all about loving the stranger and creating a world where not just your own tribe and family can thrive but all human beings. Philanthropy means simply love of humankind derived from two Greek words – philein (love) and anthropos (humankind). If you have rubbed shoulders with Jewish philanthropists, even really wealthy ones, you don’t get the vibe of elitism that often comes with the mindset of charity. Another value central to Jewish philanthropy and spirituality is Tzedakah which is usually translated as charity, though it is derived from the Hebrew word more accurately translated as “justice” or “righteousness”.
At the Imago Dei Fund, we take great pride in the Hebrew roots of our name: the “imago Dei” is Latin for image of God but is from the root Hebrew צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים tzelem Elohim which connotes the shared stamp of God that unites us across lines of difference in a common humanity. Motivated by our Christian faith, we too are seeking to do our part to mend and restore the wholeness of our world which has been so fractured by our perennial base penchant to stigmatize the other as an “invader” and erect walls which divide and separate instead of bridges that build understanding.
We’d like to honor those who died in the Tree of Life massacre by spotlighting the justice-centered, being-good-neighbors refugee work the synagogue is apart of which is alive and well across the country and world and likewise right here in Boston. Here are two organizations we’d love to honor and offer as places to give to if you want to do something to stand in solidarity not only with your Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues, but also the very ideals they stand for in our world: repairing the web of human kindness and bravely standing with the newcomer in our midst to help them get on their feet and build a life here.
HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. For more than 130 years, HIAS has been helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.
Jewish Vocational Service in Boston (JVS) was founded in 1938 during the Great Depression to assist Jewish immigrants struggling to enter the American workforce and support their families. Today, JVS is among the oldest and largest providers of adult education and workforce development services in Greater Boston, serving a diverse clientele representing over 90 nations, and speaking 50 languages, and helping people secure financial independence through educational and employment services. With over 75 years of demonstrated excellence in workforce development, JVS has a reputation for continuous innovation, building person-centered and performance-based models to improve outcomes and increase programmatic effectiveness.
My Norwegian grandfather immigrated here when he was 14 years old and was welcomed here by the same spirit of solidarity that created the Jewish refugee response which we are spotlighting here: care for ourselves in time of need extending outward to our neighbors. As humans, we all find ourselves at some time as the stranger in a foreign land. When we are welcomed as a neighbor and not as a “stranger”, this is Tikkun Olam, this is “loving your neighbor as yourself”.
Watching coverage of this tragedy and the funeral on the news, I found myself swept into a mixture of emotions: tears, an acute feeling of fear for our world, but mostly a deep solidarity and admiration for the work of this particular synagogue and the larger movement of Jewish philanthropy they are part of which springs from their own experience of being strangers in a foreign land and being on the receiving end of a long running social stigma which continues to this day more than I personally have realized.
Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, visited Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a few days ago to extend love and solidarity from his congregation. On Sunday, Manning preached to his own congregation that “words matter,” encouraging congregants to use this tragedy as a reminder to go out of our way to treat one another with love as fellow human beings. The tongue has the power of life and death,” Manning said. “Sometimes we don’t think that other people are paying attention, but they are indeed paying attention. They hear exactly what you’re saying and sometimes people unfortunately utter certain thoughtless phrases that instead of lifting up a certain people, they begin to rally around a dog whistle.”
To honor the spirit of the Tree of Life from which we all are branches, let’s do our part to repair the tattered human web and bravely stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are not going to let the words and deeds of hate keep them from doing the work they have been doing quietly and faithfully around the world. Thank you for all you to to repair the world not only for your own but for all of us.
To sign off, let us pray the Eitz Chaim Hi (Tree of Life) a prayer that is recited when the Torah is taken out of Ark on Shabbat.
TREE OF LIFE
Eits chayim hi lamachazikim ba,
Deracheha – d’rechei no-am,
Vechol netivotecha shalom…
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva
Chadeish chadeish yameinu k’kedem
Chadeish chadeish yameinu k’kedem…
A tree of life to those who hold fast to it,
and all who cling to it find happiness.
Its ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all its paths are peace.
Help us and guide us, inspire us and provide us
With the wisdom Your Torah can show.
Cause us to learn, renew and return,
Just as in days of old.