Reflections from Poway: When the unthinkable happens, what can we do?

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Reflections from Poway: When the unthinkable happens, what can we do?

By Hannah Schlacter, member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps, who joined a WJC delegation to Poway after the tragic shooting on April 27th.

We weren’t supposed to take this Monday afternoon off. We weren’t supposed to pass by the vans with antennas, or the reporters holding an umbrella in one hand and a microphone in the other. We weren’t supposed to lay colorful flowers on the ground in front of the entrance. We weren’t supposed to walk past the sheriff on our way into the synagogue. We weren’t supposed to disregard the mechitzah when we sit in the sanctuary. We weren’t supposed to remember to bring tissues to wipe our eyes, or worry about the rip in our stockings, or fret about the mismatched heels jammed into our suitcase in a minute’s notice. 

We weren’t supposed to be mourning another antisemitic terrorist act in a synagogue. That was something of the past. Something that happens in other places. 

And yet. The unthinkable happened. Not once but twice. Six months to the date of the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The Chabad of Poway was also hit by terror, a Jewish community targeted just for being Jewish.

From across the country, friends and supporters poured into the synagogue to pay their respects. I came from San Francisco, as part of a World Jewish Congress delegation, to stand in solidarity with the community. I did not know the victim, Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was shot in cold blood. I had never been to this synagogue before. But as a member of the global Jewish community, I too, came to mourn.

Members of the World Jewish Congress Delegation lay a wreath at the Poway Synagogue (c) World Jewish Congress


From where we sat, media camped behind us, and rows upon rows upon rows of friends, family, government officials, security officials, and delegations were before us. Light trickled through the stained glass, portraying the parting of the Red Sea. Freedom. Triumph. The very holiday we just concluded. The bimah was aglow with candles dotting the alter, and a halo of what little sun the sky could muster up that day casting into the sanctuary. Outside we saw the playground void of children, who would otherwise be playing at recess, and we could just barely glimpse the cross of the Church next door through the upper window. Stars of David. So, so many stars of David floating on necklace chains, dotting ears, and decorating fingers. All of them different sizes and colors, and all of them worn with a unifying purpose. 

We don’t usually clap in a sanctuary. Or replace reciting the Shemah by singing the national anthem upon beginning a service. Or see policemen in kipot. Or take out the folding chairs for a sanctuary when it is not a high holiday. Or see such a rainbow of skin tones, hair colors, cultures, voices, heights, sizes, and ages in the congregation. 

But when we’re at ground zero, we break the supposed to’s and usually do’s. In attempting to make sense of the insensible, our leaders ask “So where does that leave us?” We learn of Lori’s kindness, generosity, gratitude, and love. She personified chessed—acts of loving kindness. We witness the community’s resiliency and heroism, and we commend the heroes and mensches—supreme human beings.  And we listen to the Rabbi teach that “Ha-Shem is here, Ha-Shem is there, Ha-Shem is truly everywhere.” 

And yet. The unthinkable happened. A mother, wife, friend, giver was lost. 

From Batticaloa, Sri Lanka to Christchurch, New Zealand, radical extremism is attempting to rattle the foundation of humanity: radical empathy. Ms. Lori Gilbert Kaye embodied such radical empathy, as she was a bridge across people, communities, and organizations. And Hannah, her daughter reminded us that “If they can learn to hate, they can learn to love.”

As we dab away the wetness at the corners of our eyes, put our arm around the person next to us to comfort, and drown out the chorus of sniffles, our mind wanders. What can I do? Yes, we will re-build, and yes, we say never again. But what can I do tomorrow? Or the next day or the next week or the next year?

We invest in our future: our children and budding leaders. We teach them radical empathy and grit. We build bridges by showing up when we can and giving what we can. We do not run away from our differences; rather, we confront the uncomfortable. We serve as role models, and we do not hide in the corners of the digital universe. Because we know that love trumps hate. 

Hannah Schlacter is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps, and is based in San Francisco. Her lay leadership ranges from a local to global scale, and her advocacy and diplomacy work has spanned various continents. Professionally, Hannah works in venture capital. She was raised in Chicago, Illinois.


Thousands attend a vigil to remember the victim of the Poway Synagogue shooting and stand united (c) World Jewish Congress


The funeral of Lori Kaye, the victim of the Poway Synagogue shooting (c) World Jewish Congress


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