Why I didn’t attend Seattle’s Jewish vigil

A boy holds a sign  during a memorial vigil Saturday in Pittsburgh for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. (AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar)
A boy holds a sign during a memorial vigil Saturday in Pittsburgh for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. (AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar)

The Seattle Jewish community held a vigil in solidarity with the people of Pittsburgh on Monday night. I was not there, because I was afraid.

As a journalist and a Jew, I already wear a big enough target on my back without attending large community gatherings designed, in part, to show unity and defiance to the haters of the world.

We are strong, say the leaders of my Jewish community. We will not allow hatred to close our doors and scare us from our houses of worship.

Those statements, or the guards outside Temple De Hirsch Sinai, may not be sufficient to thwart the hatred in this country coupled with the ease of buying a semi-automatic assault rifle, or quell the pervasive fear that someone could shoot up any gathering in a church, a mosque, a school or a synagogue. It is a horrible thing to think, but if someone wanted to attend the vigil on Capitol Hill with an AR-15 in his hands and evil in his heart, he could have done so.

Well meaning non-Jewish friends hugged me all weekend with emails, text messages and Facebook posts of comfort and condolence. I felt like I should respond with condolences of my own. The problem isn’t just that an angry anti-Semite killed 11 people at a synagogue where all are welcome to join in their prayers for peace and spiritual healing. The problem is misplaced hatred and easy access to guns.

As a journalist, I have been hyper-aware of the dozens of mass shootings in this country since April 20, 1999, when a couple of teenagers massacred their classmates at Columbine High School. My anger and frustration have grown with each mass shooting — from Sandy Hook Elementary, to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Marysville Pilchuck High School.

The attack at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle on July 28, 2006, didn’t make the mass shooting list because only one person died and five others were badly injured. But that one person was my good friend, Pam Waechter. Visitors to my synagogue may notice a picture of Pam hanging in the hallway. Pam was a leader at Temple B’nai Torah, but she was murdered at work.

Those tragedies all had a common denominator: guns. Semi-automatic weapons are just too easy to buy in the United States. Go ahead and fill the online comments section with your defense of the Second Amendment and inane statements about “good guys with guns.” I will not be moved.

Hatred has become all too acceptable in this country. That’s on you, President Donald Trump. Anti-Semitism and racism and Muslim slurs and mistreatment of gay and transgender people didn’t disappear when President Barack Obama was in office, but no one except for fringe hate groups held rallies encouraging attacks on “the other.”

When I was a kid, people mostly used hatred to upset and shame others. Yes, President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated during my lifetime, by shooters fueled by hatred, but everyday people were not likely to die in a mass shooting because someone got his hands on a gun.

Growing up, whispered and shouted anti-Semitic slurs toughened my skin and probably helped make me strong enough to be a journalist. But tough skin is no defense against bullets.

I am aware that staying away from Monday’s vigil was an emotional, not logical, decision. I suppose I could just as easily be killed by someone who doesn’t like this column.

The anti-Semites know where to find my temple or any other house of worship. If it was a Friday night at my synagogue, that person would be warmly welcomed at the door by our beloved volunteer greeters. The community grandparents would likely offer a Shabbat hug and then help find him someone to sit with so he wouldn’t be alone.

When I read the description of the people who died in Pittsburgh over the weekend, I thought of those grandparents. I said a prayer that the haters with guns never pay a visit to my synagogue. Or any other place of worship.

Published: October 29, 2018 in The Seattle Times

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