Last Shabbat in the Torah service we read the last words recorded in the Bible uttered by the people of the first generation that left Egypt but did not reach the Promised Land. After all of the struggles and challenges and the sins and death and destruction, they plaintively ask, ha-im tamnu ligvoah? –“Have we come to the end of our dying?” or, left unspoken, will such tragedies continue and continue?
As my dear friend, Rabbi Shmuel Hain put it last week, the massacre of the nine innocent churchgoers at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, SC is a moment in our nation’s history where we also cry out, “Will the dying, the killing, the racism, the hate never end?” Are we destined to repeat these scenes over and over again?
In the aftermath of the horrible tragedy of the murder of nine churchgoers engaged in the study of God’s word, many people reached out in sympathy and empathy to help and to heal. The leadership of the International Rabbinic Fellowship felt it was important for one of us to go down to Charleston as well, in person. It was a small gesture to share our presence and words and solidarity as committed Jews and fellow Americans of faith with the community that had experienced such pain and sorrow. And so on Monday, I flew to Charleston for a visit of less than 24 hours.
On the short ride from the airport one is struck by both the beauty of the landscape and the names of the streets and sights that thrust you back in time to a long-forgotten American history lesson. An exit on the right directs you to Fort Sumter, the very spot where the bloody four-year conflict over slavery and dignity, our nation’s Civil War, began. Here one walks on the very touchstones of our nation’s sullied past, while at the same time looking around and appreciating the amazing strides we as a nation have achieved since those terrible years and the challenges that still lie ahead.
Reaching downtown Charleston one turns onto Calhoun Street named after Sen. John Calhoun. He is recognized as one of the great senators in American history but was a vigorous proponent of slavery and state rights, pushing the South toward succession. One reaches the Emanuel AME Church with its soaring steeple and sees a mass of bright colors of flowers and cards and balloons and ribbons all left behind by people who want to express their sympathy, love and hope. One appreciates the diversity of the color and ethnicity and background of the crowd paying their respects, perhaps the greatest response to the racist gunman who wanted to divide and spark another war between the citizens of our country.
In the hour or so that I am there I speak to people on the street, share my words of solidarity and empathy, attempt to deliver a letter of sympathy and solidarity to the leadership of the church, and just take in the moment. All the while there is a calmness and serenity to all those who visit with spouses, children and friends. There is no anger in the air, no shouting, no calls for vengeance or retribution. There is a deep sense of shared humanity and empathy that is palpable. One leaves the site of the church in pain, but encouraged with the outpouring of unity and desire among so many to reject the hatred and racism that still pollutes our society.
As I start to walk across the street, just one block away, I come across Marion Square, a lovely bit of green in the middle of the concrete and buildings. And remarkably at the side of the plaza facing Calhoun Street stands a simple but powerful Holocaust Memorial to the martyrs of our people and in recognition of the survivors who made their way to Charleston. And once again a jumble of feelings and memories wells up and I think of the hate that produced the Shoah, and some of the affinities between the history of the Jewish people and the African-American community, all the while recognizing the major differences in experiences and contexts.
The African-American cab driver taking me back to my hotel tells me he grew up in New York near Newburgh and his best friend since then is a Jewish kid from an observant home. We talk of faith and communities and hopes and what could be.
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the department of Talmud and rabbinics at the SAR High School. He is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.