The Poway Shooting, and Some Thoughts on Optimism


I initially set out to make this blog a safe haven of sorts. Maybe it was naive of me, but at the outset I sincerely believed that this light-filled, pink-tinted space of mine really could exist outside of and far away from the painful history, the distressing news reports, and the general darkness that permeates so many discussions of Judaism today.

As silly as it sounds, as small and quiet as it may seem, that’s what I really believed my particular job was here. That was, to me, the best possible contribution I could make with my personal set of talents. The best gift I could possibly give to my family and my faith and my Jewish neighbors around the world.

This past weekend, though, my thinking changed. Saturday brought the news of yet another synagogue shooting, and I was brought face-to-face with that darkness again. All of us were. And my heart has literally been aching since.

Every headline, every tweet, every new interview…each one brings me back to Saturday, puts a giant knot in my stomach and brings me to tears all over again. Try as I might, I just can’t shake the image of a rabbi—any rabbi—turning around, mid-prayer, only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

The truth is, I shouldn’t have been trying to shake the image in the first place. I’m sort of ashamed that I ever did.

Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

In my (admittedly elementary) Hebrew studies, I’ve learned about a beautiful word and concept, roughly transliterated to “chen” and even more roughly translated as “grace” or “favor” or “beauty” or “kindness.” “And Noah found chen (grace) in the eyes of G-d.” (Genesis 6:8)

“Noah” and “chen” are comprised of the same two Hebrew letters (nun and chet), only the order is switched, making each word a “backward spelling” of the other—basically, they’re palindromes. Since this is also the first time the word appears in the Torah, many rabbis believe that “chen” is intended to represent a very specific kind of grace or goodness: one that is witnessed and appreciated most clearly when juxtaposed with its opposite.

It’s a simple but life-changing idea, and it carries a lesson: that light needs to recognize darkness in order to shine forth. The metaphor frequently given by the rabbis here is the bright flicker of candles against a dark room. (My dad also pointed out to me that, unsurprisingly, the first letters of the Aramaic words for darkness and light—which I’ll feebly attempt to transliterate as “choshech” and “neyr”—together spell out this word “chen.”)

Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Agence France-Press

Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Agence France-Press

It’s impossible to change a grim reality, or any reality, by turning away from it. We can only hope to exist alongside it and, in time, to use it to propel us faster into the light. In this way, we can think of darkness not as a foundation, but as a diving board…and real optimism not as a blind ignorance, but instead a bold and enlightened defiance.

Like a lot of people, I think I’ve spent a lot of time confusing optimism with ignorance. Instead of working hard on real problems, adding to awareness efforts, changing the world…I turned away from it. I built a new world that wasn’t real. I turned on a light, yes, but in an empty room, and another room stayed dark.

No more. More fittingly, never again.

I still plan to do the small, quiet, beautiful work that really does mean so much to me and, I hope, to you, whoever you are—the crafts, the recipes, the guides, the folded napkins and twinkling candles. I still believe in the power of those things, and I still believe, quite adamantly, that beauty has an important place in all of this.

But I’ll be walking into those harder rooms, too, and more often. I promise.

In an op-ed published in yesterday’s New York Times, the rabbi injured in the shooting, Rabbi Yisroael Goldstein, wrote:

I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of G-d; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.

From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging G-d’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue — especially this coming Shabbat.

Me too, Rabbi. Let there be light.

Some Ways You Can Help:

  • Chabad of Poway is hosting its own fundraiser; you can find the link here. (As of right now, there’s just under one day left on their countdown.)

  • As time goes on, you can continue donating to Chabad Poway through PayPal via their normal donation link here.

  • A GoFundMe page was created this past weekend with all funds promised to “medical operations for the victims, funeral services, synagogue reparations or anything else the synagogue would need assistance with." You can find that page and donate here.

  • An equally horrific anti-Semitic shooting occurred this past October at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. You can donate to that congregation here.

  • You might also research a few Jewish charities that feel meaningful to you and donate to them in the names of the Poway victims.

  • Last, as the Rabbi suggests, you can simply go to synagogue this week, the week after that, and the week after that…and continue to “do Jewish” out loud. In the real world, the one that extends far beyond this past weekend and this post, that’s what’s most important of all.

    I hope you will.