“First they came for the socialists …” said Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who came to resist Nazi dictatorship. “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
These words, quoted ubiquitously, resonate with me differently since the Oct. 27 massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It’s one thing for a pastor (a self-admitted anti-Semitic one) to have the clarity of hindsight and express regret for his own blindness, but the nagging question for me has always been, what about next time? When they come for us, who will speak up and not just regret that they had not? And if they do speak up, if they do stand with us in the face of terror and hate, will they do so for reasons other than their own self-preservation?
After the shooting happened, though, I realized there was another side to the equation. Sure, we wondered, who would show up for us to stand in solidarity with Jews and synagogues, the week after the deadliest attack ever on American Jews.
But what about us? In whom would we put our trust? To whom would we turn for comfort? Would we invite the outsider in? One Jewish person told me he was to be out of town the Shabbat after Pittsburgh and called a synagogue at his destination to see if he might attend morning services. The rabbi made him chant the Shema to gain entry.
But many synagogues, including Beth Am, decided to approach that Shabbat differently, to open our doors wide and invite the solidarity Niemöller once so eloquently claimed to have spurned.
These synagogues, in Baltimore and around the country, sent out mass emails. We posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and these were re-posted again and again. We invited friends, neighbors, colleagues and allies to join us for services. Some shuls did joint services with churches or invited Christian and Muslim clergy to speak. I went on the radio (even as a little voice in my head was saying, “Burg, what the hell are you doing?”) and basically invited all of Baltimore to come to shul.
And then, we waited. A maniac had come for us. Would another? Would others, the many, many non-maniacs, speak out, show up and hold us in our grief, panic and fear?
They did. Beth Am welcomed 800-900 people for #ShowUpForShabbat, hundreds of whom were not Jewish and not Beth Am’ers. And many shuls in Baltimore and around the country were full that Saturday morning and/or the previous evening. As I looked around at the crowd, I was struck by how they were diverse, compassionate and (miraculously) willing to sit through a mostly traditional Shabbat service. They came with their tears and their hugs and the fullness of their being.
Just before the Prayer for Our Country, I had our many guests stand and said, “Look around. This is what America looks like.”
Two things happened in the wake of that Shabbat morning. The next day, a congregant, a native Pittsburgher and Reservoir Hill resident, posted on Facebook that a woman had been shot and killed a few blocks west of our shul where, in her words, “my community was showered with love and support yesterday.” She invited others to join her that afternoon at a Baltimore Ceasefire vigil in memory of yet another victim of gun violence.
Showing up begets showing up.
The second thing that happened had already been planned: a “Party at the Polls,” which was one of more than 90 such gatherings planned by another Beth Am congregant and his extraordinary Baltimore Votes initiative. Outside our shul that Tuesday evening, our IFO (In For Of, Inc., a nonprofit created by Beth Am’s Board) and Social Action volunteers listened to a deejay spin records, danced, distributed more than 300 ice cream cones and greeted one another as we came to do our civic duty and participate in the midterm election.
The Rabbis say, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah — one sacred obligation leads to another.” If we show up for them and they show up for us, more of us will feel held, heard and valued in our moments of grief.
And perhaps fewer maniacs will come for any of us.
Daniel Cotzin Burg is rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on The UrbanRabbi.org. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.