Coming Together

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Coming Together by Cecelia Ross - Photo by Elise Anstey

In November 2018, my family and I played as a string quartet for a Shabbat service in remembrance of Kristallnacht. Before then, I had never gone to an event commemorating the tragic day. My parents, both of whom are professional musicians, had been planning for several months to play violin and viola duos for the service, but closer to the event, the rabbi from our synagogue asked if my sister and I could join them.

Originally, I hadn’t wanted to play for the service. Performing makes me nervous, especially for events where the music is there to enhance the audience’s experience rather than just to present the art. But, not wanting to disappoint our rabbi, who seems to have a magical way of persuading people, I went along with it.

It ended up being an unforgettable experience.

My temple had recently suffered a fire, sparked by faulty electrical wiring in the building. While thankfully no one was hurt, it destroyed the children’s library and coated the entire second floor, including the sanctuary, in soot. Since the building was not useable at the time, a Unitarian-Universalist church was kind enough to host our service, making our congregation feel welcomed and comforted.

The sanctuary in the church was fascinating, with many different religious symbols displayed on the walls: a cross, a Star of David, a pentagram, a yin-yang, a Happy Human, an Om, a Unitarian Universalist flaming chalice, a Dharmachakra, and a spiral. It was an amazing, beautiful sight. I knew I was in a place where, despite all the hate and discrimination that goes on in our world because of religious differences, everyone was welcome.

This powerful feeling was reinforced as the service progressed. At my synagogue, it is our custom to pull apart the challah with our hands, passing the loaf around the room to share. We do not use a knife because the tool symbolizes war and violent acts are not intended to be performed on a holiday. During the Kristallnacht service, the rabbi invited other clergy from various religious groups in the area to come and share the challah. Representatives from several different Christian denominations, a mosque, and from the nearby Turkish Cultural Center came up to join our rabbi. This was an incredibly powerful moment. It was so moving to watch people from these differing religions stand together doing something so peaceful that even a knife would be out of place.

Even as the service helped me to remember that people can be kind and welcoming, it also caused me to muse on times I have faced people’s preconceived notions about Jews. Though I am lucky enough to have never experienced intense anti-Semitism, and while I recognize that Jews have equal rights as everyone else, growing up as something other than Christian has still been uncomfortable at times.

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Many small occurrences have happened throughout my life that made me feel different because of my religion. My first memory of a time like this was at a ballet class in first grade. In the spring, the other kids were excited about First Communion, and were commiserating about preparation for the honor. Having never heard of this, I asked what it was. My ballet teacher explained it to me, and my classmates were very confused about why I wouldn’t already know. My teacher told them that I wasn’t Catholic, so I “receive Jesus in other ways,” when in reality I don’t receive Jesus at all.

Last summer, I went to a music camp where I think I may have been the only Jew. On a bus on the way to a concert, I was sitting near a group of kids who were having a discussion. One of them mentioned someone Jewish who went to his school, and another joked that he, himself, was Jewish.

“Are you really?” one of his friends asked, perturbed.

“No,” he replied, laughing.

“I didn’t think so,” the friend said, then puzzlingly continued, “You live too dangerously.”

There are also larger things that cause discomfort and fear, as well as shame for being different. When I am exposed to stereotypes about Jews, I feel that it is my responsibility to prove that we are not the snobbish and greedy people that some say we are. Additionally, I am afraid of being treated unfairly as a result of people’s assumptions. It is exasperating to feel like I cannot fit in with people who otherwise have much in common with me just because they believe that Jews are harming the world.

During the weeks surrounding the Kristallnacht service, I felt even more insecure than usual. After the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, sometimes I became nervous just to leave my house. I did begin wearing a Star of David necklace my grandmother had given me in order to show my support, but it felt very dangerous to do so. As a result of the shooting, I was also even more afraid to be inside my synagogue. I felt like at any moment, someone could come and cause tragedy for our community.

Following the shooting, my synagogue hired a security guard to stand by the entrance. Even now the doors are always kept locked. This strikes me as something very sad, because one of the main values of a synagogue is to be welcoming, and to help everyone in need through every means possible. Additionally, it makes me nervous that we require these measures. Every time I walk past the entrance, I am reminded of the danger that is risked by everyone who comes to the usually warm, welcoming place.

In light of all the fear and sadness surrounding the world’s current events, seeing all of the clergy members stand together on that Shabbat evening was all the more special. This moment still comforts me when I see hate occur, helping me to remember that in reality there are people who do respect others despite their differences, viewing all people, no matter who they are, as people.

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