After Poway, the need to build vibrant Jewish lives

We write our own Jewish history. And the defining moments in that history are the times when we must respond to tragedy with strength and fearlessness.

Kesem Cohen

As a native Israeli, I’m well-accustomed to terrorism being a part of daily life. Due to the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the chaotic Middle East region, whenever an attack strikes, Israelis immediately check to see if any of our relatives or friends were affected.

Yet in my current role as a shlicha (Israeli emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel in San Diego, I never imagined that an anti-Semitic attack such as the shooting at Chabad of Poway would happen. It seemed to me that living as a Jew in the United States is a largely peaceful experience in an accepting and religiously tolerant environment.

Then Poway happened. This unspeakable tragedy and despicable terrorist attack served as a jarring wake-up call that deadly anti-Semitism can occur anywhere. And the signs have been there. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2017 and 2018 were two of the three years with the highest single-year totals of anti-Semitic incidents in America since 1979. The Poway attack also came six months to the day after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

But in the aftermath of the Poway shooting, I’ve been tremendously inspired by the resilience of San Diego’s Jewish and broader communities. Most importantly, I’ve felt that I myself have a role in the healing process—that I have a role in building history.

I borrow that phrase from 18-year-old Gil Pasternak, one of the teenagers I work with as the leader of Shevet Galim, San Diego’s Israeli Scouts troop. Gil was at the Chabad of Poway during the shooting. He saw Lori Gilbert-Kaye get shot from the corner of his eye.

Just a day later, Gil and I knew that we needed to incorporate the events that happened in Poway into a Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony that we had organized far in advance. It was during that ceremony that Gil read a blessing for those injured in the shooting, including the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, who lost his right index finger to the gunfire, and told the crowd in his remarks, “We build the history.”

Gil is right. Jews around the world pray, work, volunteer and engage in all other aspects of daily life together. We build tight-knit local communities, and those communities build connections with one another to form both a national Jewish community and a global Jewish people. We thrive because our roots are planted in common ground. In every moment, through our actions and experiences, we write our own Jewish history. And at various points, the defining moments in that history are the times when we must respond to tragedy with strength and fearlessness.

In moments like these, serving as an Israeli emissary in America takes on a whole new meaning.

The Chabad of Poway synagogue is attended by many of the Israeli-American families who I interact with on a regular basis. My role in the current healing process is to give the youth I work with a space to freely express their emotions after this traumatic event. At the same time, as an educator, I must place the shooting within a much broader context: the Jewish people’s long and painful history of enduring anti-Semitism. It’s my responsibility to ensure these teenagers aren’t complacent in the face of all forms of bigotry and hate. This means when I speak with ninth- to 12th-grade students, I teach them how to address their second to eighth-grade counterparts about these difficult and complex issues.

By embracing this sense of collective responsibility, the Jewish communities in San Diego, across America and internationally can ensure that despite events that are beyond our control, we can still control many aspects of our own destiny. In response to terror, we must lead vibrant Jewish lives by continuing to strengthen our social, cultural and educational programming. We must stay strong. We must act as a unit.

And we must continue to build history.

Kesem Cohen is the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Shlicha (Israeli emissary) to Shevet Galim, San Diego’s Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) troop.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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