Choose love, choose life – Rabbi Sanford Akselrad – The first anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting – Oct. 27, 2019

October 27, 2019

Choose love, choose life – Rabbi Sanford Akselrad – The first anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting – Oct. 27, 2019

In the fight against hate, we are stronger together

October 27th, 2019

Good morning everyone.   It is a joy and a pleasure to return to Christ Church Episcopal, and I so appreciate the invitation of your beloved Pastor, the Reverend Barry Vaughn.  .   To be honest, many people asked me on one of the few Sunday mornings I had off, why I chose to speak at a Church.     I admit, I probably wouldn’t agree to speak this early on a Sunday at a synagogue.   No, I would sleep in!   But I felt especially today of all days, this is where I needed to be.  For today is October 27th, and it is the first anniversary of the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States in the Jewish community.  1 year ago today, 11 were murdered and 7 were wounded as a madman reigned hell on earth to unassuming service of worshipers.  Today, on this anniversary, there is a message that needs to be told, lessons that need to be learned that go beyond the Jewish community.   And I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts with you.

When I talk to my congregation about the rise of anti-Semitism.   It is like talking to the choir.  We feel it.  We know it.  And we constantly ask ourselves what can be done.

This morning, I feel like I AM doing something.

Because frankly, when there is a hatred and bigotry it may start in one community, but it does not stay there.   It migrates, like a serpent, wrapping itself around those who are easy prey to vicious distortions of the truth, innuendos and prevarications about “the other”.   Gay, straight, black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew… all have been attacked at one time or another for being different.  

And so I choose to spend my morning speaking up and speaking out against feelings of bigotry and hatred.   Because beyond “thoughts and prayers” we need to change hearts and minds.

Mass shootings have occurred in night clubs, festivals and concerts,  schools, churches, and synagogues.   And I frankly am fed up.   I am fed up feeling helpless.  And fed up feeling alone and isolated.  And fed up that it has happened with such frequency that none of us can remember the last shooting.

On the anniversary of 1 October, I wrote a poem.   I want to share it with you if I could:

“I long for a time when a day is like any other”

There was a time when a calendar day was a day like any other. A day of promise and hope. Unassuming in character. A day like any other.

Of late, too many dates are assigned to a tragedy of a mass shooting. Like today. The second anniversary of 1 October.

For too many 1 October is no longer a day like any other. For too many this day is unlike any other.

I long for a time when time was counted by births and birthdays. By anniversaries and holidays. By hopefulness and not despair.

I long for a time when days were unassuming and endless possibilities were present. I long for a time when days were undefined and the book of life had yet to be inscribed.

I long for a time when a day was like any other.

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad

October 1, 2019/5780


So how can we turn back the clock?   I am not sure we can.   But we can certainly change our perspective.   Sandy Hook.  Orlando Nightclub shooting; Texas Church Shooting;  1 October Harvest Festival.  Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting.    All of them have in common the demonization of the “other”.

In the Jewish tradition, we start reading our Bible portion from the very beginning.   We read about the creation of Adam as the first Man.  A story that we share in common.   When our rabbis asked, why did God create ONE man.  They responded, to teach that all of us are descended from a single human being.  And the bible portion goes on, and we learn that not only are we descended from ONE man, but that in creating Adam, God declared that this Man would be created “Btzelem Elohim” In the Image of God.   Wow.  Each of us is “b’tzelem Elohim” in the image of God.                  Every   one  of   us.  

And the moment we deny this fact… and this reality.. is the moment it is easy to kill and murder.  For the moment we deny our common humanity and holiness we cease to recognize “the other” as human.

So I am here to remind us all, of what should be obvious.  That no matter what our race or religion we are stronger together and we need each other.   We need to hear each other’s voices.   And see each other’s faces.   And feel each other’s pain.

There is a famous story of a rabbi who was very beloved.   His students would come up to him.  Oh, rebbe, I love you.   We love!  The rebbe looked at his students.  “You love me do you?”  then tell me-what is it that gives me pain?”   The students were stunned into silence.   “You can not know me; understand me; truly love me…until you understand what gives me pain.” 

And perhaps it is thru those moments of shared pain, that we do in fact understand each other better, and in turn learn to love each other more fully.   And honestly.

Let me share what I feel is just such a moment in my life.     It happened just about a year ago.   A few days after the mass shooting in Pittsburg at the Tree of life synagogue.  As President of the Board of Rabbis for Clark County, it fell on me to plan a community wide vigil within a few days.   Now, I don’t know about your Church community, but I can tell you, trying to organize the Jewish community-oh my…it is not easy.

Two rabbis, three opinions.   And I had 7 rabbis, 4 cantors, and at least 5 Jewish organizations to corral.

And so it was  November 1, 2018 a few days after the shooting that I found myself standing on the pulpit at Temple Beth Sholom a sister congregation in Summerlin watching the fruits of much labor in bringing together our community    Over 1600 people gathered to find comfort, express anger, and to bring support to one another during this time of unease.   The cynic in me would ask, “Why does it always take a tragedy to bring us together?”  But higher angels prevailed and I was touched deeply with the optimism of a community united as one, singing and praying together.

From my vantage point on the pulpit, I was able to witness something else, quite remarkable.  In the front were seated dignitaries of many faiths.   For over 30 years I have been involved in the Inter-faith community.  It was heart warming to see my friends there of many faiths.  Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, and Muslim.  What was truly iconic was watching the head of the Israel American Committee standing next to an Imam singing…Am Yisrael Chai.   The People of Israel Live!


Was that an awkward moment or was it fate?  

What was even more ironic and profound was that the shooter Robert Bowers justified his actions because he blamed the Jews for the so called “sin” of bringing Muslims to America.    Prior to the shooting he wrote on social media, “Open your Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL Jews bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”  Bowers hated the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization founded in the late 1800’s to help resettle Jews fleeing the pogroms of Russia and eastern Europe.  Today it continues its mission by rescuing Jews and non-Jews who are fleeing persecution.   “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.  I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.  Screw the optics, I’m going in.”  Tree of Life Synagogue had been one of over 270 synagogues around the country that hosted “National Refugee Shabbat”  the previous Sabbath.  That Sabbath American Rabbis spoke on the most recurrent theme in the bible,  “Do not oppress a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Perhaps the fact that an Israeli and Muslim were standing together in a show of unity was more than awkward or ironic.  It was fate.


As has been shown many times.  Hate knows no color or religion.  And there are moments when all of us have to stand as one.  For we are stronger together.

And yet it is not always easy to stand together with people of such diverse religious beliefs and political ideologies.   The stark truth is that all religions are not alike.  That there are many differences in beliefs and teachings.   There are deeply held core beliefs on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, immigration, and the politics of the middle east.

To be involved in the work of the Interfaith community means that we look not at what divides us, but at what brings us together.   I can remember over the years how important this journey has been to making our over all community stronger.

Simple things such as hosting the Interfaith forums or the interfaith thanksgiving service brought our religious traditions closer together during calm times.   We learned from and about each other.   Which allowed us to be there for each other in darker moments.

I will for example remember standing in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters when their Mortuary burned down under suspicious circumstances. Our Jewish community was one of the first to donate to its rebuilding.  I was invited to their vigil to speak.  And truly in their minds, my speech was the most important.  This has nothing to do with me.  But what I represented.  As all of us who have been victimized know, it is one thing for the victim to speak out; it is quite another to have friends come and speak out.  And so when a Jewish rabbi (is there any other kind??) comes and stands in solidarity, and declares, “not in my town; not in our town; not in any town” shall we tolerate acts of hate, it has real import.   And it is not awkward.  It is powerful.

On this anniversary of the shooting in Pittsburg, the rise of anti-Semitism in America is of deep concern to the Jewish community.   For many they would view this as solely a problem for the Jewish community.     But there is a troubling thing about hate.   It may start with one people or one race or one religion; but it rarely stops there.   And that is why it is so important to me; to our community for me to be able to stand here today, and share this pulpit.  And to speak my truth about what transpired a year ago.

Indeed, some have compared the jews to the moral equivalent to the canary in the mine.   When we are attacked, it is a reflection of the moral demise of society.

Martin Niemöller was a protestant minister in Germany.   At first he welcomed the Third Reich with great enthusiasm.  With time his eyes were opened and he realized the threat of Nazism to his society and religion.   He is perhaps best known for this quote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

            We live in challenging times.  With our society so divided politically, it is getting harder and harder for folks to speak out.  They are demonized, accused of bias and bigotry and racism.   And of course there is the undermining of what is considered a “fact”.  


I had a confirmation class a couple of years ago.  We were talking about the Holocaust.   And the child disagreed with me that there was a Holocaust.  It was just fake news.  No one could kill that many people.  And the Jews would have fought back…  Well there is a lot to unpack in that statement isn’t there?   But that in itself is a whole ‘nother sermon.   But here’s my point:   When we lose faith in the press.  When we lose confidence in our institutions.   And in our leaders.   And in each other-because we view people in categories.   There won’t be a table big enough…or small enough that will allow us to sit together.


And that is not a world in which I want to live.


No, I am involved in inter faith work, not because I agree with everyone at the table.  But I am involved because there are values and ideals that are both bigger than one religion, and upheld by more than one religion,  that can and do bring us together.   And one of those values is to stand up against HATE.


And the moments that this happen, those are the moments that I strive for; that I seek to create; and embrace; moments that I have lived for…  my entire adult life.


So when I recall that moment a year ago, when we all filled the sanctuary at Temple Beth Sholom… and we sang Am Yisrael Chai and an Israel and Muslim stood side by side.  Along with folks of many religious traditions.    I don’t think it was a coincidence or fate.   I think it was God’s voice speaking all at once through each one of us.  A chorus of faith that for a moment rose above the din of fear and distrust.

I live for such moments.

Yes, I do.  


And in a world in which too often hate and love are in competition one with the other.


I choose love.  


I choose love.  

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