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Pittsburgh & the Courage Contagion

Author: Debbie Danon

The shooting at Tree of Life synagogue Pittsburgh by a white nationalist has sent shockwaves through Jewish communities around the world.  Through the grief and outrage on social media, I close my eyes and I think of the Tree of Life members gathering in prayer and to celebrate a brit milah and welcome a new life into their community. I imagine our gatherings at the North London Tavern, or at Shir Hayim's building in Finchley Road.  A small, terrifying voice in my heart whispers, 'They were targeted for being Jews - this could have been us.'

Tree of Life Synagogue Pittsburgh

This voice I know has been resounding for many of my Jewish friends and family. Through the racket of Facebook and Twitter, Daniel Mackintosh and I could see there was a yearning for human connection, for a space to hold our grief, confusion and fear together in person.

On Sunday night, more than 20 of us from our two communities - Shir Hayim and Willesden Minyan - came together to weep, to pray for the Tree of Life community and all holy communities, to share our fears and hopes, and to engage in the practice of solidarity. 

We heard from Allison Ziontz and her sister Dani, Jewish Pittsburghers who shared their grief with us, as well as stories of the Tree of Life community members who lost their lives.

We were also joined by three members of the local Shi'a Al Hussaini community centre, whom we met on Yom Kippur after the cowardly hate attack on their community. Their warm solidarity and compassion brought fresh tears to my eyes. It gave me a glimmer of hope that this is a turning point, where as Jews we align ourselves in solidarity with resisting all other hatreds which deny people their dignity, legitimacy and safety. Antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism - it is the denial of humanity and freedom that we must practice standing up to, whether it affects us directly, or because it offends our values as Jews. 

At the end of the day, we were people gathered in someone's living room - in the grand scheme of things, what difference could we make? My co-chair Daniel Mackintosh shared these powerful words from veteran organiser Tamara Joseph on the practice of solidarity, which deepened for me the significance of our gathering:

'There’s a reason that people don’t stand up unless they’ve formed a conscious and deliberate and regular habit of doing so: it’s frightening, and it’s frightening for a good reason, because it carries real risk and jeopardy. This is true even in relatively low-risk situations like challenging an unacceptable remark by a friend or colleague. So standing up to power requires courage.

Just as standing up to power requires practice, not standing up to power is addictively habit forming... The fear and the risk of standing up to power are mitigated when people take action collectively. The experience of solidarity, knowing we are not alone, being able to depend on the support of the people around us, gives us the courage to act. Hesitation in the moment of decision can be fatal to action. Once you start asking yourself what you are going to do and whether you are going to do it, you have already lost the impulse to act. When everyone looks around to see who will make the first move, nobody moves. That’s why you need the experience, the practice, the habit, the discipline of solidarity.

Solidarity prepares you to step up when you see an injustice without looking around to see who else is stepping up. It’s an act of leadership and courage but also an act of confidence based on experience that other people will make the same decision to step up at the same time.

Courage and action are contagious, just as inaction and fear are contagious. Solidarity is about promoting the contagion of courage.'

May we all catch the contagion of courage and solidarity swiftly, and use it to the full in these challenging days.

If you couldn't make the gathering, but would like to take a moment for Pittsburgh, here is one of the songs we sang - Olam Chesed Yibanei, 'We will build this world from love.'

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