On April 27, the final day of Passover, a gunman entered Chabad of Poway, a synagogue in San Diego, and took the life of one of its congregants while maiming and injuring several others.
When I glimpsed the headline and the bolded name of the city where I grew up, I quickly fumbled to open the article. The murder had taken place a few miles from my home. I immediately began cycling between mourning and anger, grappling with a strange and distorted sense of intimacy in which the personal had become political.
Before I moved to Richmond, I lived one neighborhood over from the synagogue. The Chabad Hebrew Academy is another congregation situated down the road from my house, and every week on Shabbat, I would see groups of orthodox Jewish families from the window of my home heading to this synagogue together.
Their lives were woven into the community we shared. While I am Buddhist, not Jewish, the shooting renewed my awareness of what it means to be a community member. It renewed my awareness of the social responsibility I should shoulder when members of that community face a loss that reflects growing trends of antisemitism in the United States.
In other words, what should I do to help?
This past spring break, I was a part of a pilgrimage to Poland, which allowed me to engage with this question through the power and improbability of multi-faith spaces.
Our group included Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Christian, and spiritually-seeking individuals. We were connected by our desire to converse about the Holocaust and the fraught Jewish-Catholic relations that continue to affect narratives of culpability and reconciliation today.
During the seven days we spent traveling around the country, we visited four concentration camps and extermination sites. Majdanek was the second largest of the camps and one of the most brutal.
When we entered Majdanek, we were immediately met by a compound of stark black barracks, where the prisoners had once lived. Our tour guide led us between the barracks, winding down the path until we reached the end of a road, where we stopped at the final monument in the camp.
The monument was an open-air urn cradling the ashes of those who had perished at Majdanek. The structure looked like a massive crater, mirroring the gape that heaved in my chest at the sight of it.
Josh, our trip leader and the chaplain for Jewish life at UR, began reading the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer honoring the lives of the deceased. While I couldn’t understand his words, their sentiment reminded me of my own practice. I reached for the familiarity of my meditation beads and wrapped them around my hand.
Our group stood next to the monument in a huddled circle, and I felt eclipsed by the mausoleum and its history. We were witnessing the capacity for human hatred and the consequences of Jewish segregation and extermination.
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Through this, our group came together in improbable solidarity to learn and become more familiar neighbors with one another.
Although I wish I was in San Diego to attend the vigils, my responsibility to community extends beyond my city. I am reminded of other faith communities around the world, such as Christians in Sri Lanka and Muslims in New Zealand, who both recently suffered violent attacks on their houses of worship. In the week after the Easter day bombings in Sri Lanka, a group of Muslims in Malaysia visited churches and temples to offer solidarity and learn about how others practice and pray.
I urge others to similarly extend a hand. As I learned through the multi-faith pilgrimage to Majdanek, to gather and unify is not only to defy odds and their historical precedents but also to support those in our communities who should not have to weather the burden of hate alone.
Contact Jessica Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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