Update: Approximately 25,000 people protested the shootings in Tel Aviv on Saturday, according to Yetnews.com. President Shimon Peres said "The gunshots that hit the gay community earlier this week hit us all."
My best friend in third grade in Hempstead, Long Island in the late 1950s was Esther Rudnick. I was a good little Sunday school Christian with smart parents who approved of my going to Hebrew School with Esther after regular school and to her house for special holidays like Passover. Esther's parents were pleased, too, to help educate a young person in the ways of their faith. Even if I didn't quite understand the language, the bond of friendship built a bridge between cultures.
Though we were only seven years old and didn't know it, Esther and I were already nurturing the seeds of social justice activism inherent in our respective faiths.
I couldn't help but think of this when I covered the memorial service for 26-year-old Nir Katz and 17-year-old Liz Trubesh, killed last Saturday night in a sudden horrific explosion of bullets when a masked gunman burst into an LGBT youth center in Tel Aviv. The Esther I knew could well have been the murdered straight ally Liz Trubesh, there to learn more about my LGBT people, just as I had learned something about being Jewish.
It's the way the world is supposed to be. This cross-cultural identification that leads to empathy that leads to greater understanding that leads to social justice and equality.
It was something I was already sensing by seven. Since my father was in the Air Force, we'd moved around a lot. In fact, before he was stationed at Mitchell Air Force base (he was head of procurement for the Air Force), we lived in Tachikawa Air Force Base in Tokyo, Japan. I was bussed to school off-base and every morning had to face wild Japanese college students waving signs and screaming "Yankee Go Home!" When I asked our babysitter Ri San about why they hated me so much - she explained how the US was an unwelcome occupier of their country. It wasn't Me - it was what I represented.
But it sure felt like they hated Me. It was something I remembered viscerally when we returned to the states and I saw on TV how little black kids were being screamed at as they were being bussed to school. In my heart and bone marrow, I identified. And as I moved more through the world, I began to see the commonalities while appreciating the differences.
The memorial service at Beth Chayim Chadashim on Wednesday night was called "Service of Remembrance, Healing & Hope for the victims of the shooting at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center." Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) is the world's first LGBT synagogue and requires two guards standing watch outside the entrance.
The roughly hour and half service of prayer, songs, readings and poetry was organized by Rabbi Denise Eger, the openly lesbian president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and Rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. BCC's Rabbi Lisa Edwards lead the service, which included participation by 15 Rabbis, three cantors, Rev. Dr. Neil Thomas from Metropolitan Community Church/LA, Elissa Barrett, the lesbian executive director of Progressive Jewish Alliance, Rev. Samuel Chu, executive director of California Faith for Equality, Andrew Cushnir of the Jewish Federation (which is collecting fund to help fix the center) - and Gil Artzyeli, Deputy Consul General of Israel.
There were audible gasps as Rabbi Denise Egar described what happened - how the masked gunman came into the center at the end of Shabbat Nachamu (the Sabbath of Comfort), the first of seven Sabbaths following the mourning day of Tisha B'Av and leading up to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). It was as if they felt a collective shock to the soul: not only were these youth - children, Denise said, but they were observing a religious rite - indiscriminately shot at for being LGBT.
Denise once described daily living in Israel like living in New York City the day after the Sept. 11 attacks: on edge expecting another random attack any minute - but having to go on and live life in defiance of the fear. Tel Aviv was supposed to be relatively safe for LGBT people - and now that safety was shot and the experience of living on edge as an Israeli merged with living on edge as an LGBT person.
For a moment, everyone of good heart and conscience was an LGBT Israeli Jew.
Dr. Joel Kushner said, "We grieve here, too, for the safe space for young people to find out who they are."
Deputy Consul General Artzyeli expressed condolences and expressed his outrage. "This senseless act of violence and hatred is unacceptable," he said. "Every man and woman is entitled to respect and equality."
Rabbi Lisa Edwards told of how just a few weeks earlier, members of the famed antigay hating Rev. Fred Phelps family protested gays and Jews and Israel across the street from BCC. She talked about how important it is to make a promise to ourselves to always "spread respect, to speak for righteousness, and always to demand equality."
Edwards closed the service by noting that through the response to the shootings, "we see how the struggle for hope and equality is universal." And everyone joined hands to pray and sing "Heal us now."
Ultra-conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the center on Thursday and heard about how the murder of Katz and Trubeshi and the injury to ten others may have come from antigay incitement from government and religious leaders. He was also given a letter that said, in part:
"Severe incitement is voiced from many sources, including Knesset members and ministers in your government. (The shooting attack) is the most serious incident the gay community has experienced since the establishment of the State. The day after this horrendous murder is not the same as the days before. Woe to us if the blood of those killed and injured was spilled in vain."
And yet on Friday, the Jerusalem Post
reported that young people putting up fliers about the shootings in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood were chased away.
One member of the group told the Army Radio reporter who accompanied them:
"We never claimed that the murder was carried out by haredim, we just wanted to promote peace and say that the idea that murder crosses the line is something we all have in common," another member of the group said. "The haredim apparently thought we were blaming them."
"If we had known it would end like this, we wouldn't have put up even one poster," he added.
One of the comments on the story posted online by Moshe from Israel reads: "Will the gay community please stop WHINING"
Sounds like something Rev. Fred Phelps would say. Christians vs Jews. Jews vs Jews. Us vs them and vice versa.
Yes, the struggle for hope and equality is universal - the way the world is supposed to be. But for all the prayers and songs and heartfelt, well-meaning empathy and compassion - someone please tell me where in the world is it safe to be LGBT or an LGBT ally today?
[Photos: Lighting Candles; Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli; Rabbi Denise Eger; singing "Heal Us Now" song.]