A long time ago, I walked into a big creepy barn to meet the brother of one of the Oklahoma City bombers.
We had a nice talk, he and I, about militias and fertilizer bombs and was I sure I wasn’t FBI? He liked to punctuate sentences by shaping his thumb and forefinger into a gun, aiming at my forehead and pulling the trigger. Pow.
A lot of days feel like that now.
I wish I could tell you I walked out of that barn with some insight into how monsters get made.
The kind who detonate a truck bomb in front of a federal office building and its day care center.
Or mail pipe bombs stuffed with broken glass to politicians and newsrooms.
Or toss bombs through mosque windows.
Or gun down black shoppers in a supermarket because the black church next door locked its doors.
Or walk into a synagogue, scream “all Jews must die,” and slaughter senior citizens at prayer.
It could break your heart, if it hasn’t already. This random, repetitive cruelty. The people who stood by and did nothing while someone raged and plotted and posted bigoted garbage online and plastered their van with hateful sound bites from presidential speeches.
I walked out of that barn knowing just one thing. We’ve got them outnumbered.
Look for the helpers, Mister Rogers used to say when things got scary. There are always people who are helping. In Pittsburgh’s close-knit Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a few blocks from the house where Fred Rogers raised his family, four police officers were shot trying to save the congregation at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Muslim groups raised more than $100,000 for the victims and their families. Thousands of people around the country offered prayers and donated blood and gathered at candlelight vigils to weep for the congregation and for our country.
“It is important to remember such goodness in our broken and heartbroken world,” said Rachel Stock Spilker, cantor at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, often walked by Tree of Life and once taught at the synagogue’s Hebrew School.
She told her neighborhood’s story Monday night, at a vigil that drew dozens of faith leaders and a multidenominational crowd so large that people spilled out the doors of Mount Zion and onto the lawn.
Squirrel Hill, she said, is a diverse neighborhood with a distinctly Jewish flavor, where most residents know at least a few words of Hebrew or Yiddish. Like this one:
“It is haimish — a homey, familiar and comfortable place with lots of colorful characters and a deep sense of neighborhood pride,” she said. “As one fellow Pittsburgher said, ‘It is a place where people don’t talk about caring for each other; they simply do it.’ It is literally Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.”
Surrounded by people who cared enough to come out to multiple vigils around the Twin Cities and to heap flowers on the doorsteps of local synagogues, she said, “I didn’t feel alone.”
“We have to look to what’s good. Because there is a lot of good in the world,” Spilker said. “Also, at the same time, we have to move forward in action.”
When that happens, you could stand by and do nothing. Or you could stand up for the targets of their rage.
This weekend, the American Jewish Committee is calling on the Jewish community, its allies, neighbors and elected leaders to pack into synagogues nationwide. The #ShowUpForShabbat campaign will be a celebration of Jewish faith and culture. If you have a problem with that, you have a problem with us.