On Feb. 27 I drove from Manhattan to the Mt. Carmel Cemetery outside of Philadelphia, where 500 Jewish grave sites were damaged and vandalized in one of a string of attacks against the American Jewish community. On the same day that I made the trip, Jewish Community Centers and Jewish day schools across the country continued to receive bomb threats.
As I walked down the rows of grave sites on a beautiful Monday morning, I found myself returning to an ancient spiritual struggle: What impels someone to hate? But walking here beside these blocks weighing tons, bearing witness to the desecration, I was more perplexed by the sheer amount of physical labor and exertion it must have taken the vandals to upheave these heavy stones.
Cemeteries are sacred spaces. Each grave — a person; each person — a world, according to the rabbis of the Talmud. When I arrived I was struck at how empty the site felt. There were police present as well as a few media trucks. Otherwise, it was sparse. A local townsperson here offering coffee, another there to help clean trash. And a few people coming to visit their family plots.
“I just checked on Mom. She’s OK. Dad too,” one woman said to her husband.
This is the intimacy we have with cemeteries: They are the eternal dwelling places of our loved ones, their private homes, except these rooms are part of a conglomerate, a hall of many. While 40 people stood above the earth of Mt. Carmel to visit, repair and investigate, hundreds upon hundreds of people stood beneath the earth, their voices heard no more.
In Jewish tradition, burying someone is considered the highest form of compassion and kindness one can show, as the deed can never be returned. Perhaps this highlights the cowardice of the perpetrators of these acts of desecration: attacking those who can no longer defend themselves.
However, what the assailants did not anticipate was the outpouring of support for these targeted communities amid calls for religious tolerance and healing. Within hours of a fundraising campaign organized by the Muslim community in response to the St. Louis cemetery destruction, the goal had been met many times over. Within days of the Philly attack, over 200 faith leaders joined together as the Jewish federation plans for a community-wide clean up.
In the Torah portion this week, God commands the ancient Israelites in Exodus 25:8, “Build for me a dwelling place, so that I might dwell among them.” Rabbinic commentators note that “place” is singular whereas “them” is plural, implying God truly dwells among the people. Therein lies our task: to live our lives in such a way there the Divine might seek to live among us.
I look at the rise of recent attacks against Jews and Muslims and feel despair; is this a fitting home for God? And I look at the outpouring of support and feel hope. This is an eternal tension, as we strive to live, wondering if the glass is half full or empty.
As a Jewish American, I take pride in the multicultural and ethnic diversity of our nation. Unlike my grandparents, I have been blessed to grow up in an age when Jews were not barred from attending certain colleges or country clubs. I cherish the patriotism of radical hospitality of this country, while still acknowledging the tremendous work that remains ongoing on behalf of racial justice and gender equality. And so, I visit these sites where fear of the other wrought acts of hatred, but I am fearless.
I believe that we as a Jewish community and American people want and demand better for our children. I trust that, as the chasidic sage Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov once taught, “If you believe you can destroy, then believe you can repair.” We will continue to counter acts of hatred with acts of love while we demand our leaders heed our rallying cry: the people united can never be defeated.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is the co-founder of Base Hillel, a pluralistic millennial outreach organization.