When tragedy strikes, it strikes the community first and then the nation. The tragedy that unfolded early Sunday morning in the Pulse Nightclub in downtown Orlando has rocked the families and friends who have lost loved ones as well as those 53 injured in the worst mass shooting in American history.
In the days after the shooting (as I did the morning of 9/11), I called one of the imams in town whom I had befriended for years. Both times I asked whether they and their community had suffered repercussions as a result. Fortunately this time, there have been none.
After 9/11 there were death threats. I was part of the group of organizers who had a prayer service on the U of A mall with the president of the university. We followed up by many panel discussions with religious leaders in schools and on television, as well as by protecting the mosque and local Muslims from any potential violence from our community.
My friends, tonight is not about banning of automatic weapons. Tonight is not about fewer rounds in the magazine of a semi-automatic weapon. Nor is it about a “No-fly, No-buy” law or other bills being proposed by Congress. It is also not about whether or not a politician says the words “Radical Islamic Terrorist”. There will be a time for all of those discussions in the future. For now, our faith demands that we allow time for the families who have lost loved ones to bury their dead. If in a week’s time after that, there is a desire for a conversation about these agenda items, let’s talk. But in the meantime, let me share my thoughts and concerns about the events of this past Sunday.
As my colleague Rabbi Mordecai Finley, rabbi of Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, shared with me tonight, “We are better than that. If we insist on thinking about causes before the bodies have been buried, let’s not use their deaths to advance an agenda. Let’s at least show some respectful restraint. Let’s discuss causes, not start with blame.”
We, as a society – especially a religious community – are concerned and angered by one human being hating other human beings because they are different than us. Did ISIS motivate this killer? Perhaps. Did his rhetoric of gay hatred come from his understanding of his religious teachings? It certainly seems so.
Is this so different from Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., who killed three people in Colorado Springs last November when he attacked the Planned Parenthood there?
Is this so different than James Charles Kopp, who murdered Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider? On October 23, 1998, Dr. Slepian had returned from synagogue, where he was attending a memorial service for his father, when Kopp shot him through a window.
On September 22, 2000 – Ronald Gay entered a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia and opened fire on the patrons, killing Danny Overstreet, 43 years old, and severely injuring six others. Ronald said he was angry over what his name now meant, and deeply upset that three of his sons had changed their surname. He claimed that he had been told by God to find and kill lesbians and gay men, describing himself as a “Christian Soldier working for my Lord;” Gay testified in court that “he wished he could have killed more fags,” before several of the shooting victims as well as Danny Overstreet’s family and friends.
Perhaps these men are extremists, terrorists in their own right. They certainly terrorized their communities. Should we call them “Radical Christian Terrorists?” Does it matter what we call them, really? We know that they have violated the sanctity of our communities. Is that not enough?
There is something wrong within our own society when 20% of hate crimes in 2013 were founded on perceived sexual orientation. 61% of those were on gay men. The list is endless of attacks on gays, lesbians, and now state governments are attacking the transgender community with legislation to protect the status of bathrooms.
The religious teachings insisting that a homosexual, transgender, or queer lifestyle is wrong are immoral teachings by any religious leader. We as a Reform Jewish community must insist on that. There is no Jewish text that you can show me that demonstrate that any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer individual, by their orientation, is violating any religious law!
I instructed my Hebrew High students a few years ago that it is up to them to protect their friends who are gay. “Since society does not afford them equality everywhere and every place for the time being, it is up to you to stand up with them and for them.”
The sadness is that Pulse was not just a bar. It was a sanctuary and a refuge for a segment of our society who are not treated with equality. It is not about the AR-15, and it is not about the Muslim. It is about our neighbors who are different, who feel they cannot fully participate in our society. They need places to find their community, places that can be a refuge from the hatred and the awkwardness they face daily; a place where they can safely find joy. That place has been threatened!
The religious community of Or Chadash stands in solidarity and united in denouncing violence. We pray for those who were murdered. May your souls be raised up to be embraced by God. We pray for healing of body and soul for the injured, and for comfort to others who were present in Pulse nightclub as well as to family and friends who lost loved ones or those who are caring for those who were injured. From our faith, no lesson is more fundamental than our belief that God desires for us to love and have compassion for every human being, be they gay or straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or atheist.
This tragedy will not destroy us. This tragedy will not define us. We will not live a life in fear of the next tragedy. We will resolve to be strengthened in the values of our faith as we reject violence and celebrate life with joy. We at Congregation Or Chadash stand in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in the fight against hatred and bigotry wherever and in whatever manner it occurs.
O God, I do not know where to turn in a time of violence. I have no easy answers or solutions to acts of violence against the innocent. I believe that You are not present in any act of violence. I believe that every human being is a child of God. I believe that violence ignites greater violence and that our only lasting legacy is love. I will cast out fear and boldly live to love my neighbor. I will cast out fear and renounce hatred, or desire for revenge. I will cast out fear and publicly proclaim that You are a God of unlimited and unconditional love. I will embrace the suffering of others and wipe every tear from their eyes. I will devote my days to works of mercy and justice, not to deeds of death and destruction. I will give my passion to kindness and beauty and imagination. I commit to hope and the children of tomorrow. Amen.
— Attributed in part to Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB
Please read this article by my colleague, Rabbi Mordecai Finley: http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/my_experience_of_an_active_shooter_incident