Opinion: In Pittsburgh, the very idea of America failed

by tgilden

By Shep Englander and Jackie Congedo |

Cincinnati.com |

It’s the summer of 1790 and then-President George Washington has just returned from visiting Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. He pens a 340-word letter – a pledge to the Jewish people as a religious minority:

“The government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support,” writes Washington.

The right to the “free exercise” of one’s faith is inseparable from the very idea of America. It stands before all other freedoms as the very first amendment listed in the Bill of Rights. And even in today’s polarized times, virtually all Americans agree that this right is fundamental to the promise of America.

Jews were repeatedly attacked in their homes in other lands – from Czarist Russia to Nazi Germany. They uprooted their families and came to America from all corners of the earth and built American lives so that they and their children would uphold and enjoy these American principles and protections.

And as Jewish communities have embraced these principles, we have thrived in America, contributing to the development of this nation since before the American Revolution.

But this past Saturday, an American who spouted anti-Semitic hate on social media is charged with yelling “all Jews must die” and then killing 11 Jewish Americans while they were praying. This was the first time in American history that Jews were slain in their house of prayer. It’s left us stunned and lost and afraid.

When minority communities are attacked simply because of who they are and what they believe, the promise of America has been broken. The Pittsburgh attack, therefore, is much more than a Jewish tragedy. It’s an American failure of historic proportions.

This is why faith leaders from all across our region stood outside the Mayerson JCC, shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish community, at last Sunday’s vigil. They see themselves in this tragedy. They understand that the Tree of Life Synagogue is their mosque, their temple, their church. The innocent lives cut short in Pittsburgh are their fellow congregants.

So what do we do when America’s foundational promise has been broken? What do we do when our confidence in the right to live safely as religious minorities in this country is shaken to its core?

We fight for this inalienable right.

Through our fear, we fill our synagogues, churches, temples, mosques, and holy spaces. Through our fear, we insist that people of good will can put their politics aside and come together to find reasonable ways to prevent deadly weapons from being used to murder innocent people. Through our fear, we recommit to standing against antisemitism, bigotry and hatred whenever we witness it and to reducing the spike in toxic and inflammatory rhetoric. Through our fear, Americans of both parties and across the political spectrum have to hold their own leadership accountable as they harness the power of another uniquely American institution; the power to participate in returning this nation to its promise, to its ideals at the ballot box on Tuesday.

A fundamental American ideal has been violated. The responsibility to restore it rests with all of us as Americans.

Shep Englander is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. Jackie Congedo is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Cincinnati.

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