On Saturday, in an act of terror, an act of hate, an act of vitriol fueled by false information and ignorance, a man categorized as white by America’s racial code entered Pittsburgh’s historic Tree of Life synagogue in the name of white supremacy. He chanted, “All Jews must die,” and with an AR-15 assault rifle and three assault handguns shot up the room.
I am grieving because Melvin Wax, in his 80s, one of 11 Jewish people shot and killed on Saturday in pure hate, is the cousin of a friend from the Island. Because my friend is the spiritual leader of those in mourning in Pittsburgh, and she is struggling to keep her head above water. Because the dozens of rabbis and community leaders I know across the country are now, new to their jobs, in charge of a grief immeasurable, a fear brewing, a palpable and real call for hiding, arming, guarding, walling, that is old as old can be.
I am grieving because this is another signal of how far we, as a culture, have fallen.
What I know of the beloved Island where I live is that in summer it is teeming with Jewish and black people and all kinds of powerful ranking “others” from across the country. What I know about the Island where I live is that come winter, there are still black people and Jews, Muslim people and Azorean people, Jamaican, Serbian, Croatian, and Brazilian people. There is a wild array of diversity, but a majority of the Island where I live is white and Christian. Our values are pure and good in Dukes County. We adore the earth and we take care of one another.
What I also know of the Island where I live is that in January, someone told me I “drive like a Jew,” and that I “will always be a Jew.” In February on that Island where I live, a relative of that person blurted “that Jewboy” at a dinner party. In March on the Island where I live, an ex told me, chuckling when I mentioned fears of anti-Semitism, that he’s “not a Nazi; his friends are.” And by April on the Island where I live, I read a post by Holocaust deniers in an Island-wide online chat group.
In May on the Island where I live, there were swastikas found etched into a storefront in Oak Bluffs. And in June on the Island where I live, as the ice thawed and spring took over, I decided I had grown “paranoid,” because I love this Island, my community, the values and care surrounding me.
Jewish people pray on Saturday. When they gather in prayer it is usually to worship the following basic concepts: Pikuach nefesh: which means life and protecting life — is paramount. Tikkun Olam: which means we are here to repair the world, and to leave it better than how we found it. And olam chesed yibaneh: the vital importance of love, community, ritual, and care.
This is why left-wing, right-wing, blue-wing, black-winged Jewish people gather in their different iterations. Some for Israel, some against. Some for Trump, some against. All, though, all for, in their own ways, some warped, some not, worshiping the idea that life is precious, that making the world better is vital, and that community and care are key.
I want to talk about Saturday, your Sunday, church day, the day of showing up for God in community. I don’t care if you are an atheist, if you hate religion, if you think the Bible is a damaging book. I don’t care about your choices. I care that those people in Pittsburgh that morning had a right to theirs, to gather in the name of their personal source of peace, and to pray.
Robert Bowers, a truck driver who kept to himself bar his rants online, decided otherwise. Can we feel this yet? It’s not about grandparents, even though my family’s fate before I was born does color my lens on things, does make me terrified that I have to leave now, to get away before it gets out of hand. Most of them were taken away in trains, stripped naked, were put in rooms and gassed to death before being buried in piles like trash. “Paranoia” and “neurosis” — you know what I am talking about, vets — it’s a form of PTSD, a reminder of a time of erasure, of explosions, of lives not mattering and unpredictability.
Saturday that returned. Erasure. Explosives. Lives not mattering. Unpredictability. I worry writing this about who is celebrating, who is sending postcards like they did in this country for lynchings, postcards of black men swinging dead and naked from trees, white people pointing, giggling, smiling. The madness. Some of you are celebrating, excited, hot in the face for the murder of 11 Jews. “All Jews must die,” right?
Celebrities are posting about Halloween. My friends on-Island were at the Port Hunter Saturday night in costume. I left my house Saturday with a bag of costumes, makeup, and glitter. But by evening it was a time to mourn, time to draw the curtain, pause the party.
I am not just grieving because hatred bloomed on Saturday, because marginalized people are no longer fully safe in America, because the spirit of my Jewish communities was threatened and Jews were killed — because Bowers, a product of a culture that has normalized the act of shooting up congregations, schools, and community centers in the name of hate, manhood gone wrong, and the thirst for white supremacy to rise, took his gun too far.
I am grieving, too, because I am hearing mostly Jewish voices mourning and grieving, pausing and bowing heads. This is not a Jewish problem. I shouldn’t have been alone at home mourning on Saturday night while the party continued without pause. A single and clear pause. This is our problem, all of us. This is an alarm. One of many sounding off, some that have been sounding for years in marginalized communities. We will soon all be complicit in more.
Because all of us deserve safety and the freedom of expression. Because when churches fill to the brim on the Island on Sundays they don’t need “armed guards” as a norm.
Some of you will say “Israel.” Some of you will say, “backwards Jews.” Some of you will say something horrifying to me and my bloodline. As horrifying as my Jewish friends who say, “I am not surprised.” As horrifying as 11 people over 55 years old, one 97, splayed bleeding on the floor of a religious sanctuary in one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the country.
Pipe bombs. Murdered black people. Murdered Jews. The attempted erasure of trans bodies. Hitler Halloween costumes. This is our America, our Island, our world. Until we choose otherwise. We create the safe spaces we dwell in. We choose how broadly our arms will open. And we decide what to teach our children, when to speak up for justice even when difficult, and how to shape the actions of our communities. We have the power to make this island safe for everyone, my Jewish self included.
Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer who lives on Martha’s Vineyard.