Rabbi Reuven Bulka, prolific writer, communicator and leader in the Jewish community, talks to Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi about the impact of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders and how to honour the 11 people killed at prayer.
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Hannah Marazzi: When did you first hear about the tragedy in Pittsburgh, and what was the reaction of the people around you?
Rabbi Reuven Bulka: We first heard about it at the end of the Sabbath because on the Sabbath, we're not in contact. It’s a day away from all technology. We don't answer the phone. We don't go onto Internet. We don't have our computers. We don't watch television. So, it was only after the Sabbath that we found out about it. Then, of course, the full gravity of it hit. Unbelievable. Shocking. We had the memorial gathering at the Jewish Community Center Monday night, and I said to Ottawa’s police chief that I was amazed the police got there in time to catch the SOB. He said that he, too, was amazed because it's almost like catching a bank robber in the middle of holding up the bank. It doesn’t happen often.
HM: My colleague Father Andrew Bennett says that people of faith are never more themselves than when they are at prayer. I read that the Torah portion for that day was on Abraham and Sarah, how they welcomed three strangers to the tent. We’re talking about welcoming strangers and then this occurs.
RB: The other interesting thing is of, course, that it takes place in the middle of a circumcision and, ironically, the Torah reading dealt with the circumcision of Isaac. Go figure. You could almost make every single Torah reading have some sort of connection. You’ve got to be careful about overstretching, but that's what rabbis do: we always stretch.
HM: We're living in an age where anti-Semitism is on the rise. In turn, that raises the question of whether we’re already forgetting the lessons of the past. How do we recover these important lessons of the past? How do we watch to make sure they aren’t lost?
RB: There are different types of anti-Semitism that we have to be careful about. This is a very potent and violent form of anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism mixed with weapons of significant destruction. That's a very toxic mix. Obviously, no matter how much we try, there's not going be anything that we can do to stop a lone crazy from doing crazy things. People in Las Vegas will tell you about what happened last year when 58 people were killed. That wasn’t an anti-Semitic attack, though it certainly didn't come out of love, that's for sure. But to stop all crazies from doing crazy things? As much as we'd like it to happen, in no generation in human history have we been free from brutal murders.
I'm not saying we should be placid it about it. I'm not saying we should be complacent about it. But be realistic and think that if we set as our target doing something to eliminate it all, the only way would be by some radical measures that would interfere with the way we live, and make life so cumbersome that people would say let me take my chances. So we don't want to do that. So that's one type of anti-Semitism that is very violent. But it's like hate that spills over into all sorts of forms, and you have crazy people who sometimes are not with their full wits. Whether they hate someone because of their colour or because of their politics or whatever, it's really hard to stop all that from happening. And gun control is not going to do the job either.
But there's another type of anti-Semitism that we can control, which we do not, and that is the hate speech that comes from people in positions of influence. I hate bringing this up, but we should bring it up. Louis Farrakhan, just a few weeks ago, spoke about Jews being vermin, which is actually a carryover of disgusting Nazi propaganda. When you say Jews are vermin, well, we exterminate vermin, so that's what we're going to do.
I am always repelled by anybody who refers to the murder of six million as extermination. It's almost as if we're buying into the Nazi term. This was brutal murder. Nothing less than that, and we shouldn't reduce it. But Farrakhan did exactly that. And he's a guy who shared a podium with Bill Clinton and George Bush at Aretha Franklin’s memorial. They could have said, “if Farrakhan is there, we're not coming” We didn't hear that. And he's been spouting this hate now for years. The violent anti-Semitism that comes off from his mouth is very toxic.
We can control that by our attitudes, by saying not only are we condemning the anti-Semitism that kills people but also the anti-Semitism that, in fact, attacks people and insults them, and ridicules them and reviles them and makes them seem repulsive to the community at large.
So, it comes in different forms. We need to have a coherent and consistent approach to it. On the other hand, as much as there have been more outbreaks of an anti-Semitic nature in the last while, we've also had an explosion of goodwill. People have expressed their outrage and their horror. We've had a rise in anti-Semitism, but we've had also a rise in philo-Semitism. We're living in good times because the people in positions of responsibility – politicians, the police – are on the right side. They are against hate. They're fighting it with all they can, so we should be grateful and happy about that.
HM: You mentioned that on Monday night, all Ottawa congregants gathered for a memorial to the horror that shattered the peace of Shabbat for brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh. Can you share with Convivium readers a little bit about how the evening unfolded?
RB: We had a packed house, overflowing, and that was on less than 12 hours notice. People came from all walks of life. What we experienced was uplifting. We had representatives from all levels of government. All of them shared heartwarming sentiments that we're not going to rest and allow things like this to happen; that we're vigilant and caring about our community. You could see these were sincere words coming through people who really were struck to the core. They didn’t just come as politicians. They brought their children. It was not just simply lip service. It was very heartwarming.
All the major religious leaders were there. The (Ottawa Catholic) Archbishop (Terrence Prendergast) came. There was representation from other religious communities, and people from all walks of life who had heard about the events through the old fashioned ways like radio and the new fashioned ways like Facebook and all that. We had someone there who was a relative of one of the victims in Pittsburgh, who happened to be in Ottawa at the time. We recited Psalms together, sang together, affirmations of faith and of hope. But it was more the fact that we were all together and encouraged each other. I would say if anyone had any anxieties about where the leaders of the community stand, they were dissipated by the sincerity of the remarks that were made by everyone.
And we should not take this for granted. You know, having our thousands of years of history, we know how big of a blessing it is when the government of the country that you're living in is committed to your protection. It doesn't happen all the time. In fact, a lot of times the opposite has happened. So we value this. We appreciate it.
HM: A lot of the reflection has been marked by deep fear and sorrow, and I know many must be turning to you for wisdom and comfort and leadership during this time. What words do you have for people of faith in this time of tragedy?
RB: We have to be very careful with this. One of the things we don't want is to minimize the gravity of the loss for the families in Pittsburgh, any more than we would want to do that with any community or individual suffering such a loss. But there's a very big limitation to what we can do directly. Obviously we can’t just call a family in Pittsburgh that we don't know, and bother them with saying we feel badly for you or stuff like that. These families must go through their own grief at the present time and there's got to be perspective. So, then we have to ask ourselves, okay, if that's the case, what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it? There's a limitation to what we can do.
On Monday night I suggested, because I was the MC for the evening, look, you had 11 empty chairs with names of the 11 victims. What we should be doing is asking ourselves how we can do something positive. I suggested to each person there that they look for 11 different things that they could do of a positive nature to honor the memory of the departed. That includes becoming a blood donor, making a donation to the food bank, or to a homeless shelter. There are so many things that we can do that we may not think of doing. You know what? If you really want to make a difference, take this tragedy and let it speak to you in a way that you don't just simply coddle yourself and say, “I feel so badly.” Take it and do something positive so that you perpetuate the memory of those who passed away, by making the world a better place. Because every good deed you do makes the world a better place.
That's the thing. Just think small. Think about things around the corner. Do a good deed for someone, that makes a difference. And you should do 11 of them. If you want to do 12, I won't complain. But at least do 11 of them for the 11 people who departed. That will make a positive contribution. People who are in these types of situations need something to do, something to empower them, something positive that is much more effective than just saying: “Oh, I know you feel bad and you should feel better and everything will be fine with all that.” This pablum stuff is really not where the helpful action is.
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