Last week, the American Jewish Committee organized a nationwide movement in reaction to the white nationalist attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The AJC encouraged people to attend services at their local synagogues this past weekend, along with the use of the “#ShowUpForShabbat” hashtag, reminding Jews to claim that “love triumphs over hate.” For some, this campaign may have felt empowering and inspirational.
For me, it felt alienating and misguided.
Personally, I have responded to the tragedy in Pittsburgh by emphasizing my Jewishness in public spaces — wearing a bright Magen David (Jewish star) each day, walking a little taller, my gaze just daring someone to question or challenge me. But I know that not every Jew responds this way or feels comfortable sticking out in a crowd. Some of us may want to blend in, to pass, to hide. I know because I was that Jew, the one who straightened her hair and wished strangers a merry Christmas, the one who thought that avoiding the sting of anti-Semitism was on me. I had to learn what it meant to have a Jewish identity outside of persecution. I know myself now, but that doesn’t make me bulletproof.
The Hillel at my school discussed this tension at length, debating the merits of #ShowUpForShabbat on campus. What if secular Jewish students felt pressured to come to services to prove their Jewishness or their grief? What if the last thing they wanted was to highlight their Jewishness as they walked through the streets of our Confederate flag-bearing town to reach the sanctuary? Or what if they, or well-meaning gentile students, simply had a time conflict with our services? Did that make them less of a Jew, less of an ally? The last thing we wanted was to ask people to prove something to us. We relayed our concerns to the Jewish life center, but we were overruled.
And so Shabbat came. We were cramped into the sanctuary like sardines, our knees touching one another, our breath in each other’s faces as we prayed. A non-Jewish girl in front of me got annoyed by the constant standing and sitting. Jewish students relegated to the hallway didn’t know where to turn for the Amidah. I saw Jewish students who don’t always come to Shabbat, who maybe felt that they needed it more this week, sitting on the floor while Christian professors and students sat in chairs. I couldn’t help but think that if, God forbid, something should happen again, we would trample each other alive trying to get out of that room.
The longer I sat there, the angrier I felt. I had to be “on,” to work, to explain prayers and customs to curious onlookers when all I wanted was to experience the warmth and comfort of Shabbat. One student spoke about how most American Jews could never have imagined something like Pittsburgh happening, and I bristled. I listened to kids call me “g*psy Jew” all through middle school, and I knew there were others in the room who had experienced similar anti-Semitic bullying. We could imagine this, I thought.
As the services continued, we preached love, respect, and understanding. We preached civility, that weighted word that made me feel like I was laying down my body for white nationalists to walk over. I knew that the messages came from a well-intentioned place, from a place of intercultural communication and acceptance. But I also knew that I wasn’t ready to forgive, to extend a helping hand to those who question my existence a mere six days after a man murdered 11 members of my tribe.
There was something saccharine about the evening, something that felt so fake. Maybe some non-Jewish people in the room would pledge to fight anti-Semitism, to put themselves on the line for us. But most would go back to their dorms and do nothing else. Maybe they would tweet about the tragedy, or change their profile pictures in support. They had shown up for Shabbat, punched another hole in their ally card, and could now go to sleep in peace. I felt alienated, exoticized, and singled out for my Jewishness in what should be a Jewish space on campus… but at least we had gathered together in the name of civility.
I don’t blame the non-Jewish students who showed up for Shabbat. They came out of an impulse to understand and to show that they cared, even if only for a night. But the whole event contributed to a culture of performative allyship and solidarity that permeates so many liberal spaces, especially college campuses. We go to school-sanctioned rallies for marginalized students, we sign petitions, we like each other’s Facebook statuses in a desperate effort to prove our allyship. But do we ever ask what marginalized students truly need from us? Do we stand in front of them in the face of threats, walk them to class, offer a hug, or respect the fact that they maybe don’t want us to do anything unless it comes from a place of genuine caring and concern? We are so afraid of being perceived as ignorant, as indifferent, as wrong, that we forget to ask those most affected by a tragedy what they need.
I will continue to show up for Shabbat, as I do every week — not just because I am involved in Hillel, but because I find Shabbat to be the best way I can celebrate my community and ground myself. Not every Jew feels this way, and they shouldn’t have to. Not every non-Jewish ally should feel pressured to attend a religious service different from their own, something they may not be comfortable doing. And I’m not sure I want those people at Shabbat, even if their hearts are in the right place. I want to exist Jewishly in a Jewish space without explaining the words coming out of my mouth and the meditations of my heart to other people. I don’t want us to forget or cloud over the Jewish nature of the Pittsburgh attack. And I don’t want to perpetuate this cycle of performative activism. Really, I just want to pray in peace.