Pittsburgh is an inflection point for American Jewish identity
The trauma that happened to my neighborhood has demolished the idea that being Jewish in America is solely expressed through identification with Israel.
A year ago, an anti-Semite spread hate-filled fliers throughout my neighborhood, the Town of Chevy Chase, where I serve as a council member. Just over a weekend ago, an anti-Semite enraged by his hatred of immigrants and empowered by his access to an assault rifle murdered 11 of my parents’ neighbors in cold blood at the Tree of Life synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh.
As the father of three young, biracial daughters and as a fourth-generation Pittsburgher, raised in Squirrel Hill, I believe that it’s clear that American Jews are living in the midst of an inflection point in our American experience. I have always felt American — after all, my grandparents were born here and I’ve served my country in government — so for me that is not in question. But what is in question is deeper, and speaks to what will or will not ground our community going forward, post-Pittsburgh.
Growing up in Squirrel Hill provided an almost idyllic portrait of Jewish life in America. Ours was a typical Jewish community grounded in the twin pillars of post-World War II Jewish identity: support for Israel and commemoration of the Holocaust. When we spoke of being Jewish, we spoke of both Israel and Auschwitz.
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But today, that’s clearly not enough.
The trauma that happened to my neighborhood has demolished the idea that being Jewish in America is solely expressed through identification with Israel. After all, whether or not the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem had absolutely nothing to do with his initial lament, just after the killings, that the synagogue didn’t have armed guards to protect it. In addition, an American embassy’s location overseas or our policy on Iran also won’t physically protect Jews in America.
To put it another way: American Jews may have Israel in our hearts, but how the United States treats her won’t provide physical safety for us in America.
Regarding the Holocaust, there are many lessons that we have learned, particularly about the importance of never cowering in the face of anti-Semitism. But perhaps there are other lessons from that period that we’ve brushed past because they’re too raw, such as the mindset of Jews in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. After all, many of these Germans — because that’s what they were — could have written the line above that I just wrote about being an American. Many German Jews couldn’t have imagined that their country would turn against them, just as we here can’t imagine it will either.
So now, we face a challenge. Are we going to act as if the Pittsburgh attack was an isolated event, one that hasn’t happened before and that was the work of a deranged loner? Or, are we going to act as if the killings were something unpreventable, the work of age-old anti-Semitism that will never go away?
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But the reality is that we American Jews have no more time to waste in answering such core questions. The time is now for grappling directly, openly and honestly with what it means to be both an American and a Jew. We can no longer look to either Israel or the Holocaust to define us. We must define us for ourselves. Now.
This inflection point in American Jewish life has been a long time coming. My generation — old enough to have children, young enough to still have parents and grandparents — has benefitted from the heroic work of previous generations. My grandmother, who’s now 95, built my Jewish experience through her and her cohorts’ labor, establishing Jewish institutions, supporting Israel and honoring the Holocaust.
Now it’s our turn to step up.
American Jews have a lot to think about right here at home. It’s not as if we haven’t been leaders in social action, advocating for causes for decades, from the environment to health care to housing. We have actively worked for tolerance, civil rights and social cohesion. Yet, external political activism isn’t enough when it comes to building a communal identity.
Internal questions about faith, family, and our relationship to G-d must also be part of the conversation. Our spiritual connection to our religion can’t be fully realized solely through activism and connection to a foreign country. We also have to look inside ourselves and strengthen our connection to who we are as a people.
So perhaps that is the next great task for American Jews: how to truly carve out an open, integrated, yet definitively Jewish experience, right here in America. We must get out of our comfort zones and redefine ourselves for the challenges that lay ahead, recognizing the threats and accepting that the answers aren’t what they were not so long ago.
The status quo for being an American Jew is over. It’s time for a new approach. PJC
Joel Rubin is a town councilman in the Town of Chevy Chase and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.