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Pittsburgh/Israel

I’m in Israel with our largest ever Israel Ride – 219 participants, plus more than 60 crew and staff members. Six of our riders live in Pittsburgh, two are members of the shul that was attacked, and many more grew up in Pittsburgh or have spent much of their lives there. One person lost one of his closest friends. Two of our riders were married by someone who was shot and had an operation yesterday and is in hospital right now. So – we are a long way away, and it feels very very close.

I and all of us send love and condolences to everyone in Pittsburgh and to everyone who is mourning. And, in a different sense, to everyone in the Jewish community and everyone in America who is appalled and shocked that we have reached this point.

This morning we stood together overlooking Machtesh Ramon and we sang Eitz Chayim Hi – the words that we read before returning the Torah to the ark on Shabbat morning, the tune that is so beautiful and well-loved. Shuls will be packed next Shabbat morning, across America – shuls should be packed, next Shabbat morning, across America – and I suspect the most intense moment will be when everyone sings those words. The Torah – the essence of who we are, the central thread in Jewish life for 25 centuries, is indeed a Tree of Life. So voices will crack, at that moment, and tears will be shed. A shared sense of our hearts breaking.

I said something this morning that was unique to this Ride and that I think is worth repeating. Just the day before we’d done a session with students from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, our partner on the Ride. Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students, more than 30 of them, meeting in small groups with our riders. And we heard the same story, over and over, each one different, each one the same. This is how I grew up, this was my family… and I came here, and met these people who had very different histories from mine, very different understandings of the world… and it was hard…. And we wrestled…. And now we’re friends. Genuinely. Not that we agree on everything – we don’t – but we know each other and we care about each other.

And what I said this morning was: the fault line now is not between Israelis and Palestinians, or Democrats and Republicans. It’s between those who strive to use language with honesty and empathy and a desire to make things better; and those who use language to inflame, incite, exaggerate and demonize. That is what our tree of life has taught us these two millennia – that language, and respectful discourse and truth are utterly central to being Jewish.

So on this sad day, I send love and condolences to everyone. A gentle hug.

And I would add: we often say may so-and-so’s memory be a blessing. But what exactly does that mean, what should it mean or could it mean? In this case I think it means: may the memory of those who were murdered inspire us to reject abuse, intolerance and lies whenever and wherever we hear them.

So I hope you’re able to go to shul next Shabbat morning. I hope that you’ll rededicate yourself to Jewish life and learning. And I hope that you’ll vote against anyone who has been party to whipping up the daemons that caused eleven people to lose their lives so tragically yesterday.

I wish all of us long life.

PS – We did a ceremony this morning with all of our riders, overlooking machtesh ramon, before we set off. We sang etz chayim hi, had a minute of silence, and blew a shofar. And we gave the Torah that we carry, each day, to Barb Murock and Carl Fertman, who are members of TOL*OLS. The quality of the video isn’t great, but it was very powerful indeed. Click here to see the video.