If you’re a Jew in America today, there’s a good chance you’re concerned. First, the largest hate-driven massacre of Jews in American history occurs in Pittsburgh. Then, precisely six months later, with an almost identical fingerprint of hatred, a deadly attack on a synagogue in Poway, California.
Whose problem is this?
The Jewish people are no weaker for these attacks. Synagogues are not about to empty out because of a handful of disturbed, poisoned minds—and much to the contrary. As for those whose lives were taken, all very special Jews, all missed terribly: Don’t call them victims. There’s an honored title in Jewish tradition for any Jew who lost his or her life simply for being a Jew: A Kadosh. A holy Jew. Jews don’t die as victims, we die with dignity. That is why we are still alive.
My contention is that this is not a Jewish problem. It’s the World’s problem. Both these attacks, along with many other violent crimes of hatred in recent years are symptoms of a malicious disease spreading unabated in America, in Europe, and in the world at large.
But that’s a problem that we, as Jews, are going to have to assist in healing. For our own best interest, as well as for the interest of this country, and for the entire world.
America is suffering. According to FBI figures, hate-crimes rose 17% last year, with similar increases over the previous two years. All this while other forms of violent crime continue to decrease. Something’s wrong.
Jews are an obvious target. Like the canary in the coal mine, we tend to get hit the hardest. And yes, these are acts of rabid antisemitism. But if we want to solve anything, we need to take a broader perspective. Muslims, Christians and others have been under siege as well. Just a few days before the Poway shooting, a young war veteran plowed into a crowd crossing the street in Sunnyvale, California. He told police he thought they were Muslims.
Is there a medicine for this plague?
In the sixties, seventies and eighties, violence was increasingly on the rampage in America in a way not seen since the days of the Wild West. Ideas for quick fixes and long term solutions abounded. The Rebbe’s prescription, unique and counterintuitive, was this: Fix the education system. How? Introduce a moment of silence every day into the school curriculum, and take it seriously.
Why do I think that’s a good fit for today’s plague of hate-driven violence?
Think about it: America is divided over gun law restrictions, yet there is one point that enjoys universal consensus: Gun restrictions alone are not enough. Because the problem is not the gun. The problem is the mind of the person that holds the gun.
What has the American school done for the mind of that criminal?
We taught him how human beings first appeared on the planet. Did we teach him to be a human being? Did we teach him to respect another human being?
We taught him to use his mind to solve problems with numbers. Did we teach him to apply his mind—rather than his fists—to solve problems with people?
We taught him anatomy. Did we teach him that a human life is more than the sum of blood, guts and bones? Or did we, perhaps inadvertently, teach him that the notion of a human soul has no place in the educated mind?
We taught him about laws and prisons. Did we teach him that even if you’re so smart that you don’t get caught, you’re still wrong? Did we give him a conscience?
Did we ever demonstrate to him that these are the things that really matter in life—more than math, more than science, even more than the niftiest technology? Did we ever give him a chance to stop and think about himself, about his life, about his family, about everything that bothers him in life? Is there a space and time for thinking about life in his school?
That’s all that a moment of silence in school is about. And, yes, it works wonders. Ask those who work in schools where it’s been implemented. They will tell you that a moment of silence means that a child will go home and ask Mommy and Daddy what he should think about. It means that a child will share with his teacher the troubles he’s going through. It means the school becomes a place not just for the child’s mind, but for his heart and his soul.
Or take it from this 2013 report on the Moment of Silence program at Paul Robeson High in Brooklyn, N.Y., that described it as “an ongoing, transformative experience.”
“…The Moment of Silence provided the students an opportunity to become more mindful and reflective of their experiences inside and outside the classroom. The students have become more introspective in their writing and have a greater appreciation, empathy, and understanding of their peers . . . Students have also gained a greater understanding of educational objectives.”
Jews have to adapt to the times. The knee-jerk reaction, reinforced through thousands of years of history, has been to huddle down and strengthen the internal steel grid when under attack. But America in 2019 is not Shushan, not Rome, not medieval Spain, not Poland.
It’s that attitude that prompted some Jews to believe that if Judaism were to be safe in America, G‑d had to be kicked out of public school. They failed to realize that, in the times we live in, the opposite is true. A moral society demands a notion of an objective, supreme Judge, an “eye that sees and an ear that hears”—even if you don’t get caught by the police or the media. When that notion is lost, so is America’s soul. And that’s when the madness begins.
A moment of silence doesn’t impose prayer or belief in a Creator on anyone. But it opens the child’s mind to search for meaning, and hopefully, for G‑d’s presence in the world. And there’s a good chance the child will talk to parents and grandparents and discover that they once had faith in their lives.
True, anti-semitism never died, even in America. But here we have a voice, a well-respected voice, and therefore a responsibility to our host country. Isn’t this why we were given a Torah? Isn’t this is the core mission of our people here in this world—to be a light to the nations, who will finally come to realize that the world has a Creator who cares about how we treat His world?
We can use our voices to heal America. Let America’s schools nurture the humanness of America’s children. Let children know the meaning of silence, just enough silence that they can hear their own hearts pounding inside. Let America have a soul again.