The Tree of Life shooting and how we as a sector must respond

[Image description: Several lit votive candles on a dark surface, against a black background. Image from]
I’ve been thinking about the horrifying act of evil, racism, and anti-Semitism committed by a white nationalist at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, which killed 11 people and injured many more while they were peacefully observing their faith. I don’t really know what to say here that would be in any way helpful. HIAS, The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose work prompted the wrath of the shooter, has helped thousands of refugees and immigrants, including those from Vietnam, where I was born. The synagogue is also located in Mr. Rogers’s old neighborhood, Squirrel Hill. It is heartbreaking that a community that has created so much good in the world is repaid with so much hatred, grief, and pain. To my Jewish friends and colleagues and the Pittsburgh community, I am thinking of you, though I know that does not do anything to lessen the horror you are enduring.

I wish I had healing words, but over the past few months, I’ve just been more and more angry and despondent at the rising level of hate and bigotry, spurred on by our president, who has dehumanized refugees and immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, transgender people, Muslims, and women, and who has strengthened racists and Nazis. I’m frustrated at our archaic gun laws, our administration’s double-standards when speaking about white nationalist terrorists who murder people, and our media’s constant click-bait coverage of extremist right-wing opinions which only serves to amplify those horrible views.

I am also frustrated with our sector’s constant intellectualizing and hand wringing, especially among progressive funders, while people get slaughtered and kids remain in cages or missing. This is a dark and terrifying time in our history, and as much as I like to be optimistic, the barrage of nightmares that occur on a daily basis makes it hard to do so. It makes it hard to believe anything leads to any sort of difference.

I don’t have any words to inspire or comfort this week, I’m sorry. I am grateful to those of you whose words and actions have served as the light in this seemingly unending darkness. This weekend I’m appreciative of my friend and colleague Tara Smith, who shared the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, the practice of healing the world. Here’s a great article on this concept. “Tikkun Olam literally means to do something with the world that will not only fix any damage, but also improve upon it, preparing it to enter the ultimate state for which it was created.”

Says Tara:

“We live in a broken world. And by the sheer act of existing in this world, we all have a personal obligation to repair it. It is not enough to live your life and feel good about yourself because you are not actively doing bad things. I also believe that being good to your family and friends is too low of a bar. We live in a country where this week alone, black people were killed for their race and Jewish people were killed for their faith. No. Whether it is volunteer time, engaging in conversations to open hearts and minds, voting, giving money, or a combo, everyone has a personal, moral obligation to engage in work that is actively against hate.

“My life is blessed to be full of compassionate, brave do-ers, many of whom run circles around me on a regular basis. But a lot of us are just hanging out, a combination of focused on our own problems and enjoying the comfort of our own lives. That’s definitely me sometimes. But that’s not ok. It was never ok, and in these times – if we are not actively and consistently contributing to solutions, we are part of the problem.”

It’s OK to despair and feel hopeless. But we can’t spend too much time in that state. The people who were murdered at Tree of Life died because they belonged to a congregation that believes in love and in community. The best way to honor them is to continue our work, to take bold actions, to stand up for one another against hatred.

This week, talk to your team. Allow them space to process and grieve, not just about this horrific shooting, but also about the generalized fear, anxiety, and hopelessness they may be feeling. Keep in mind people process differently, and some people may prefer to do it in private. 

Here are some places where we can all donate (Thank you to colleague Erica Fox Zabusky, who lives three blocks away from Tree of Life, for providing this information). This is a campaign started by a member of the Pittsburgh Muslim community, which is rallying to support the Jewish community. Also, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation is giving $25k to the Jewish Federation for victims and families of Tree of Life, and also collecting additional donations here. They are also establishing a fund for the police victims of the shooting.

You can also donate to HIAS, which is “one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies, HIAS partners with the United States government to resettle refugees as part of the U.S. refugee admissions program.” Help the agency continue to do its important work, “Welcome the stranger; protect the refugee,” which it has done for over 130 years. 

But we as a sector also need to exert our power more. We need to pressure the Congress to reform gun laws, mobilize people to vote racists and anti-Semites and xenophobes out of office, push companies to stop working with white nationalists, organize rallies and protests, and engage in other advocacy efforts.

And funders, you’re going to have to release more than 5% of your endowments and engage in trust-based funding practices, and quickly, so we can do those things more effectively.

It is easy to give in to despair, or maybe worse, to become desensitized to bigotry and violence. But we have work to do, a community to build, a world to make better. In the words of Mr. Rogers,

We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond.”

That’s us. Let’s respond.