“In the Talmud, we are told that the ark held both the shattered fragments of the first set of tablets as well as the unbroken second set,” Rabbi Franken began. “In a sense, we too carry both broken and unbroken tablets in our souls. And while we never lose our brokenness, we can become whole again. We can embrace our shattered hearts. We can become more compassionate, more caring, and more forgiving because we feel our own brokenness when we share the pain of others.”
It was the evening of October 27, 2018, just hours after Robert Bowers had carried an assault rifle into the Tree of Life synagogue, opened fire, and brutally murdered eleven worshippers simply because they were Jews. To mourn the victims as well as to begin to come to terms with this tragedy themselves, members of Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation were holding a special prayer vigil in their sanctuary. I sat on the side, in the back, hoping to help somehow, not knowing how deeply that service would affect me. Rabbi Franken continued.
“Soon we’ll have some silent prayer to remember the eleven who we know have perished. But before we do that and take their memories into our hearts, this is a time not just of prayer and reflection but a time of togetherness and of community and support. And so I want to give us a chance to feel that love and connection. There are many of us here now, but if there is something, one or three words that you want to say that you are feeling now, I invite you to share it publically.”
And so, after some hesitation, members of the congregation began doing just that, sharing brief thoughts and feelings. Some were optimistic. “We will continue,” “Keep the faith,” “Faith and perseverance,” they said. Some were determined, even defiant, exclaiming, “Never again!” and “Am Yisrael Chai! or “The people of Israel live.” Some were philosophic: “Sorrow yet hope,” “Love not hatred,” and “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
However, when one woman stood up and expressed her profound devastation, saying that this shooting reminded her of what her parents had experienced under the Nazis, the mood in the room turned dark. Immediately another woman exclaimed how “sad and tired and angry” she was because of this and other recent events like it. Rabbi Franken likened her feelings to those felt by Jews who had endured the pogroms of Tsarist Russia and openly worried that there might be more shootings like this in the future. Still another woman in the back, her voice unsteady, quavering, announced that for the first time in nearly forty years she was afraid, really afraid for herself, for her family, and for her community.
Silence fell upon the congregation. And in that silence I thought about Missouri Executive Order 44, a piece of legislation that had been issued on October 27, 1838, exactly one hundred and eighty years ago that day. I reflected on how similarly Church members must have felt to hear that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” I thought about Haun’s Mill and how that fear must have turned into terror when seventeen Latter-day Saints were massacred there just three days later. I thought about how that terror simmered deep in the hearts of these Saints for decades as they were driven at gun point first from Missouri and then from Illinois and how it almost boiled over when their leaders were illegally imprisoned in Richmond Jail, in Liberty Jail, and finally, fatally in Carthage Jail.
I also thought about the persecution I had experienced—nothing nearly so dramatic or so violent as what the people around me were experiencing but still enough for me to connect with them deeply as I looked at the anguished faces of Ed and Bill, Andrea and Wallace, Larry and Caryn, Ellen and David and Heidi and Mark and Tom and Steve—kind, generous people who had so unreservedly welcomed me, the strange “Mormon” who came among them in order to write a book, into their services, into their classes, into their homes, and ultimately into their hearts.
And, as I thought about these friends, for we truly had become friends, I recalled the words of other Jews, people well acquainted with tragedy and suffering, from the Book of Mormon:
“I have charity for the Jew,” said Nephi, especially “them from whence I came” (2 Ne. 33:8). i
“Yea, and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews,” added Mormon (3 Ne. 29:8).
And finally from on High, “O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people” (2 Ne. 29:5).
In the end, I could not give voice to all the words I heard in my heart that evening. There were too many. I could only say, “You all are not alone.” However, I could also resolve to do all I could to fight anti-Semitism and covenant to promote respectful, knowledgeable, personal relationships between Jews and Christians, especially Latter-day Saint Christians. Which I did. Rabbi Franken was right. Shared pain can indeed open our hearts and bring us together. Am Yisrael Chai! May all Israel live together in peace.