A rabbi urges understanding despite hatred, fear after Pittsburgh synagogue massacre

November 1, 2018
by Tim Grobaty in Commentary
Photo credit: Thomas R. Cordova

For many, the news of last Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was one of those momentous occasions when you remember what you were doing when you first heard of the event. Rabbi David Cantor was heading into his office at Temple Beth Shalom in Bixby Knolls when a woman told him of the slaughter in the synagogue.

“I just thought, ‘Oh, no. Not again’,” says Cantor. As the spiritual leader of his 125-family congregation, he knew he had to have words ready for this coming weekend’s Shabbat ceremonies on Friday evening and Saturday morning. There will be anger, there will be sadness, there will be fear and resignation. And there will be disagreement about how to bear up under this latest instance of terror against people of the Jewish faith.

“We are a congregation of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, pro-NRA and pro-gun control,” says Cantor. “What I am going to talk about is the importance of having an open mind when communicating with other people. We’re quick to make decisions and form opinions and we love to be right. The hardest thing to do is admit that you might not be right, to acknowledge that people who disagree with us aren’t trying to destroy things, they just disagree on how to create things.”

I’m not Jewish; I was raised a Catholic and Catholic-hatred really isn’t a thing to worry about these days. I wondered how I’d feel if it was and if Catholics had not only been slaughtered last week, but it was something I had to live in fear of most of the time. It’s impossible to speculate. You can’t say, “I know how you feel.”

“Any time I want, I can sit down at the computer and find people who hate me and want me dead because I’m a Jew,” said Cantor, who speaks in an even, serene tone. “It’s the same way as with black families who have to have ‘the talk’ with their kids. Jews have a somewhat different talk, not so much about the police, but it’s about the small hatreds that they will grow up with. We’ve become accustomed to Jew hatred; there’s no Presbyterian hatred. Kids just grow up knowing that there will be people who hate them for being Jewish.

“There’s something about when people find out you’re Jewish, many people think you’re going to hell. They feel sorry for you.” He tells a story about when he was a rabbi in Tennessee and a student had to write a report about a different religion. “He said, ‘There’s something I have to do first,’ and he starts to witness me! In my office! He tries to get me to accept Jesus!”

Cantor smiled: “It doesn’t help that the scriptures say that the Jews killed Christ.”

This is Cantor’s sixth year at Temple Beth Shalom. He has previously served congregations in Manitoba, Maine, Connecticut, and Tennessee.

“I lived in Tennessee for two years and I never wore my kippah outdoors,” he said, referring to the head covering that is also known as a yarmulke. “I didn’t feel safe.”

He’s a lot happier in Long Beach. “I could very easily see spending the rest of my life here,” he says.

“California is a great place for Jews, because it’s a great place for Koreans and Sudanese and all people.”

The feeling in his congregation following the Pittsburgh slaughter is, says Cantor, one of sadness, not anger. And, of course, the inescapable fear.

“How much do we need to shut ourselves off for protection?” he says. “If you want to be secure, never leave your house, but no one wants to live in a fortress. We have to balance risk with living life. The synagogue is just as likely to be attacked now as it is tomorrow and three weeks from now. It’s important to enjoy your life.

“In Israel, if there’s a bombing, the next day the people go back to that spot. Otherwise you’re letting terror control you.”

The best reaction from all of us, says Cantor—and not just among his faithful congregation, but for those who rarely, if ever, have visited a synagogue—is to come to a service. “Go and find out about our community.

“We don’t just want people coming to pray; we want people coming to let our congregation know that it’s safe for them to pray.”

Shabbat services at Temple Beth Shalom, 3635 Elm Ave., are 7:45 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday.