Faith leaders urge redoubling of fight against anti-Semitism, bigotry

Rabbi Yosef Landa, director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, speaks at a community gathering on Sunday organized by Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Jewish Community Relations Council after the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California.  Photo: Eric Berger 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The St. Louis Jewish community is mourning with others across the country in the wake of a fatal shooting Saturday during worship at a Southern California synagogue.

“We cannot offer a deeper meaning. We are not even sure we know how to offer consolation,” Karen Sher, senior director of community engagement at Jewish Federation, told a gathering of well-wishers on Sunday at the Kaplan Feldman Complex near Creve Coeur. “But we can offer this promise. We will not let them win. We will stand taller, speak louder and fight harder.” 

The attack at Chabad of Poway, a community north of San Diego, came just six months after a killing spree at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh left 11 dead. 

It also comes on the heels of recent attacks directed at Christians in Sri Lanka and Muslims in New Zealand. 

The ongoing assaults on people of faith figured prominently in the remarks of St. Louis religious leaders Sunday afternoon. Sher struck a combative tone, telling the group that violent radicals should expect resistance. 

“They are scared that their way of life is being threatened, and they are absolutely right,” she said. “Their way of life is in danger, and we will not rest until this ideology of hatred, extreme nationalism, religious supremacy and violence is completely eradicated.” 

Cheryl Adelstein, deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, named the dead and wounded before reflecting on the tragedy.

“It is too much, but we still will never stop,” she said. “We will gather. We will unite. We will fight and, most of all, we will love, because it is our love that they fear and it is through our love that we will win.”

Rabbi Yosef Landa, director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, said he was taught that even where there is grief, there should not be despair.

“As painful as the moment is, we need to respond only with hope for the future and with resolve to make that future a better one,” he said. 

Landa encouraged those in attendance to increase their acts of goodness and do mitzvot in their lives.

“It is an absolute conviction that even the darkest of moments will ultimately be overcome and defeated by the persistent light of goodness and holiness,” he said. “While we need to unequivocally condemn and unreservedly denounce the vile and inexplicable evil, we must never lose hope in that reservoir of goodness that lies, oftentimes very deeply buried, within each and every one of God’s creatures and throughout all of God’s creation.”

Mufti Asif Umar, imam of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, condemned a “vicious cycle of violence and hatred” that  “seems like it has become the norm.” 

“I am exhausted, sick and tired,” he said. “Not physically, but my heart bleeds today once again.” 

Umar noted similar gatherings at the Jewish Community Center after the Pittsburgh attack, at his West County mosque after New Zealand and at St. Monica’s Catholic Church after Sri Lanka. 

“The wheel has unfortunately turned, and we hope the tire goes flat because we want it to stop,” he said. 

Umar said he feels that faith leaders have a lot of work left to do by encouraging love and community service. He also said they must take a stronger stance against guns.

“We must also do more to pressure our elected officials to stop using words of hate for one another, toward minorities of religious groups or ethnicities, which, unfortunately, are giving certain people a license to commit these horrific acts,” he said. 

Another member of the foundation, Ghazala Hayat also condemned the attack. She said that while many cherish the First Amendment, social media is “getting out of control” and might require regulation.

She said all violence requires condemnation and recalled her history as a native of Pakistan.

“It was practically every other week that we had a terrorist attack,” Hayat remembered. “Muslims were killing Muslims.” 

She said the situation improved only when all sides united against those using violence. 

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Shaare Emeth condemned the proliferation of guns and the irresponsibility of leaders who play upon hatred and prejudice. He said he was saddened by the need to mourn in holy sanctuariesviolated by feelings of vulnerability, suspicion and fear. 

“Once upon a time, we learned to say, ‘Never again,’ ” Bennett  said. “In our time, the refrain seems to be ‘Once again.’

“Today, we make a commitment to stand together in unity, to tear down these walls, to cease to see one another through eyes of prejudice and fear and hatred, but to work together to end gun violence in our time now, to do everything in our power to bring about a time of peace, a time of tranquility when all of us shall indeed be able to sit beneath our shared vine and fig tree and know that no one shall make us afraid.” 

Karen Aroesty, head of the Heartland office of the Anti-Defamation League, warned attendees that such attacks are going to happen again. She also condemned The New York Times’ international edition for the recent publication of a political cartoon showing President Donald Trump, wearing a kippah, being led by a leashed dog bearing the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wearing a Star of David collar. The paper later apologized for the image. 

Aroesty said she hoped to see concrete action and urged attendees to promote accountability on social media and to advocate with local officials and school boards to update policies. 

She also called on attendees to support national efforts such as the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019, which would require federal agencies to track domestic terrorism and supply state and local law enforcement with the training and resources needed to fight it.

Aroesty also urged the group to talk to friends who hold troubling views. 

“Bias is universal,” she said. “We all have it all the time. It is not something we like to talk about because, basically, we’re good people. But how can we figure out how to do better?”

The Rev. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Seminary and cabinet chair of the Interfaith Partnership, urged participants to stand with one another and continue to worship God boldly in houses of faith “no matter what the cost.” 

“We may be mislead because the United States Constitution talks about the free exercise of religion,” he said. “Religious exercise is not free. It is costly.” 

Another member of the Interfaith Partnership cabinet, Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah, concluded the event by quoting from the Psalms. 

“Now, I know that the Lord will give victory to God’s anointed, will answer Him from God’s heavenly sanctuary with the mighty victories of God’s right arm,” he said. “They call on chariots. They call on horses. But we call on the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and lie fallen. But we rally and gather strength.”