Earlier this week, my 15-year-old son overheard me talking to my husband about the shooting in Jersey City.
"What happened?" He asked.
I told him that there had been a shooting in a Kosher market in New Jersey.
"Oh, the usual," he said.
I was taken aback by his response, but I knew where it came from. Over the past couple years, he has seen me saddened and frantically working to write up messages to the Board of Rabbis in response to many tragedies - from the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, to the one in Poway, from the bombing of the mosque in New Zealand, to the churches in Sri Lanka, and the list goes on. Reports of violence directed against religious groups are commonplace in his life.
Indeed, a sense of getting used to such violence seems to have crept into our national life. What I had been commenting about to my husband was how little coverage the Jersey City shooting had received. I didn't even hear until later that the shooting took place in a Kosher grocery store, since CNN was only focused on the impeachment hearings. My son's response echoed a sentiment that is seeping into our society that violence is so frequent that it's easy to start tuning it out.
However, I told my son that this far from the "usual." During my childhood and until a few years ago, Jews were not being shot in U.S. synagogues and kosher markets. I remember a bomb scare at my synagogue when I was a child, but it was a prank call, a false alarm. Indeed, my grandparents came to this country with their parents precisely for this reason - because it was safer than Poland and Russia. They would be rolling over in their graves if they knew that their great-grandson would think for a moment that it was "usual" for Jews to be shot for being Jewish in America.
This week's Torah portion echoes the longing that my grandparents felt for tranquility. The portion is called Vayeshev (and he settled). It begins with Jacob settling in the land of Canaan. Jacob returned after twenty years away from his homeland -- after lots of drama where his father in-law tricked him into marrying Leah, and he had to work for seven more years to marry Rachel. After having twelve children and lots of rivalry, "Jacob wanted to settle down in peace" (Rashi). Jacob longed for calm, but the next chapter of his life turned out to be the opposite.
Like Jacob, many Jews in this past century fled to America, the Goldena Medina (the Land of Gold in Yiddish) in hopes of a more peaceful life. They risked and some lost their lives trying to get here. My grandfather came to the US on a boat when he was 9; his older sister died on the way.
Each night at dinner during our visits, my grandfather would tell stories about his glory days serving in the US Army. These tales often recounted anti-Semitic comments that had been directed to him and how he stood up for himself against those insults. Still these stories were always filled with tremendous pride in this country and gratitude for being here. The idea of Jews being killed in synagogue or the kosher market in this country was unthinkable.
A couple months ago, my son said something else that struck me. He said, "I don't understand why when anything happens anywhere, it's your problem." He understood, for example, why when a rabbi dies in Los Angeles, I need to send out a notice to alert the other rabbis. But he didn't understand why if a mosque was bombed in New Zealand, I similarly had to send out information.
In reflecting on his comment, I realized this idea is the crux of Jewish faith and of what it means to be a person of conscience in this world. When life is lost or threatened, when places of worship are desecrated, wherever, whenever, that's everyone's problem. Violence can never be allowed to become "the usual." All people deserve the tranquility that Jacob and our grandparents longed for - that we still dream and work for today. Until that peace is achieved, we can never settle for "the usual."