Remembering Pittsburgh for philo-Semitism

Lee Chottiner

Human Resources
Lee Chottiner

Recently, after a program at my synagogue, I ducked into the Highlands Kroger to pick up a carton of milk before going home.
I walked briskly to the dairy case, selected my item, then lined up at the checkout line to pay up and get out.
What I didn’t know is that I had absentmindedly left my kippah on my head. I might have forgotten altogether had not the bagger at checkout – literally, a kid – noticed it.
“Great kippah!” he said.
Whoa! Not only did the kid know what it was, he liked it. It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but I had just been the target of a random act of philo-Semitism.
As you know, philo-Semitism is the opposite of anti-Semitism. Lexico defines it simply as “friendship towards or support of Jews.”
And you probably never hear it mentioned in the news. The recent uptick in anti-Semitism worldwide grabs all the headlines.
No apologies for that. Bad news is urgent. It requires immediate attention. It can even be a matter of life and death. As Walter Cronkite once wrote, “What you don’t know can kill you.”
And the news has indeed been bad. A synagogue in Germany was attacked on Yom Kippur, killing two bystanders outside. Jews are being accosted on the streets of Europe AND America … frequently in Brooklyn.
Jews everywhere are thinking twice before wearing a kippah in public, or anything that may identify them as Jewish.
American synagogues, Js and other Jewish institutions are hardening their security as never before, taking a lead from European Jewish communities that have already done so. We all must be vigilant.
Nevertheless, there’s a danger to the Jewish world in succumbing to this wave of anti-Semitic news. We can lose our perspective, come to see enemies everywhere, retarding the very lessons that Judaism teaches.
True, anti-Semitism is everywhere, but so is philo-Semitism. It’s just not as extensively covered. Nor do we, as Jews, necessarily look for it.
Writing for the Orthodox Union website in 2017, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz said even when we hear about philo-Semitism, “we’re not likely to do our best to foster it.”
Sometimes, though, philo-Semitism comes looking for us.
In 2017, Temple Shalom received a threatening message on its voicemail. The following week, leaders in the Christian and Muslim communities, including an imam, walked into its sanctuary prior to the start of Shabbat services and joined hands, forming a “circle of love” around the seated congregation.
I think about moments like that as we reach the one-year anniversary of the shootings at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, my hometown. My uncle, Dr. Herman Hailperin, was the rabbi there for decades, a giant in the Conservative Movement.
I was just a kid when Uncle Herman died, not even a bar mitzvah. But I knew him well enough to know he would take no joy in Jews building walls between themselves and the world. He preferred bridges. He would want us to remember, even in times like these, that there are far more philo-Semites than anti-Semites.
Days after the Pittsburgh shootings, thousands of people marched down Forbes Avenue, mere blocks from the synagogue – Jews and non-Jews, Semites and philo-Semites – healing each other, in a masssive act of philo-Semitism.
I spent a good hour that day live streaming that march, wishing I were there.
Pittsburgh should not be remembered for the hate that triggered the shootings, but for the rush of love that followed. Philo-Semitism is a thing. As Abramowitz suggested, though, it must be fostered.

Lee Chottiner is the editor of The Jewish Louisville Community.

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