Anti-Semitism is not merely a historical, distant fact, but an evil that happens here and now.
On October 26, one day before the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue, I sent an email to Asher and Ruth, a Jewish couple from Jerusalem who had hosted me, my parents, and our close friends for a Shabbat meal years ago. For the past decade or so we hadn't been in touch, but Asher replied to my email the following Sunday.
He was glad to be back in touch, he said. But he and Ruth were packing their suitcases for Pittsburgh, because Ruth's brother-in-law had been one of the victims shot and killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27.
That was how I found out about the attack.
The same day, I also received words of concern from the Franciscan sister and the twenty University of Steubenville students whom I had guided for pilgrimage here the prior week. They said that coming to Israel had made them so conscious of both the deep bonds and the age-old wounds between Christians and Jews. But this history, which included the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, had seemed rather distant. The Pittsburgh shooting brought these issues out of history and into the present, out of Europe and Israel and into their own backyard -- Steubenville is only a half hour's drive from Pittsburgh!
This attack, so clearly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish, is a shock. Our country’s dream of freedom and prosperity has been a reality for Jews, so Americans have become used to concerning themselves with the welfare of Jews in Israel and in other far-off places. This was the case, in a special way, for Asher.
Asher works for an association that scans the globe for marginalized Jews, in order to help them get back on their feet or seek other alternatives, like emigration. I’ll always remember one story he told us at table about a trip he made to Siberia:
Asher arrived at a small town and started, as usual, by putting up posters announcing: “All Jews! Come meet at the City Hall on Sunday at 2 pm.” On Sunday, he was happy to see that twenty people showed up.
Among them were the aged mayor and his friend who was the city magistrate. The two long-time "comrades" stared at each other in bewilderment. One exclaimed, "You're a Jew?!" The other replied, "You too?!"
They set to work with Asher to find out what they had to do to organize and begin the life of a Jewish community. Asher reminded them, “The first words of our most important book, the Talmud, are these: 'At what time must one light the candles to begin Shabbat?'" Shabbat begins at sundown every Friday, he explained, and ends at sundown on Saturday.
“But here,” the locals protested, "For a couple months of the year, the sun never comes up! And in other months, it never goes down!"
Somehow, they found a solution, as the Jewish people have become experts, over the centuries, at adapting to places and situations. They are a people on the move, even here in their Promised Land, which nowadays is their own official country with quite a bit of stability, security, and prosperity.
Even so, there is a constant air of caution that seems to grasp for, cling to, and defend goods and rights, especially the sacred gifts of life and family. Tomorrow is precarious, which is a good reminder to cherish today and to continue remembering the past.
Living in Israel has changed how I respond to these issues. When I lived in the Denver house, I witnessed our Sr. Magdalit represent the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver at Jewish commissions and activities for Holocaust awareness and “anti-defamation” (activism against the propagation of anti-Semitism). But it was hard for me to take an interest in this in the States, especially as someone who ministers to a young generation that is surprisingly apathetic, in general, to social issues of the past or present.
Part of the pedagogy for the young people I welcome here is to bring them face to face with tough realities, to reflect on them together, and to have a personal way to respond. As Americans, we want to solve the problem! Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are phenomena that our Popes and almost all of our Catholic bishops have resolved to eradicate, so let’s do it! And yet this appears to be a rather subtle demon, as it has resurfaced throughout history, and it continues to do so today, even in the heart of the United States.
Let us pray for the victims in Pittsburgh, for Asher, Ruth, and all the families and friends of the victims, and for the city's large Jewish community. Let us pray for and partake in the work of the Church today to learn about anti-Semitism and to discern its subtleties. Pray also for our program and our young people, as we seek to cultivate relationships with Jews that will help heal the wounds of the past and plant seeds for a different kind of future.