The First Pogrom in American History
I was born and grew up as a Jew in the former Soviet Union.
Anti-Semitism was a “normal” part of my everyday life from early childhood: I was often called “filthy kike”, I was verbally abused, and sometimes beaten up in school and on the playground.
At the age of 14 I became the youth chess champion of my republic and was supposed to be sent to Leningrad for the national tournament. I was extremely proud and excited; I was training day and night. However, two weeks before the departure a government official told me that “a Feldman could not represent Moldavia”. That is when I realized that even in chess, being a Jew was a major flaw. They sent somebody else to Leningrad instead of me.
After several years, I felt I had no choice but to leave my homeland, my culture, my language, my family, my friends, and attempt to emigrate from the USSR. After every legal strategy failed, I announced a hunger strike, was put in jail and eventually arrived in the greatest country on earth, America. I knew that this was a place where “a Feldman” did not have to apologize for being a Jew and where Jews always felt safe.
Last Saturday’s attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh shattered that fact. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The word “sanctuary” means a “sacred” or “holy place”, but it also connotes protection and safety. In a poignant irony, last Saturday Jews all over the world read the chapter in Genesis in which the first Jewish couple, Abraham and Sarah, welcome three strangers and invite them to a meal.
That is when eleven innocent Jews praying in a sanctuary were slaughtered by a stranger shouting, “All Jews must die!”
This happened in the United States of America. In 2018…
Most Americans know a Russian word which became part of many languages around the world – “pogrom.” It means “butchery” or “bloodbath”, and it is related to slaughter of Jews. Most Jews ended up in this country because their grandparents or great grandparents were fleeing from pogroms in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and other places.
October 27, 2018 will now enter history as the date of the First Pogrom in America.
I want to stress, however, one crucial difference between the European pogroms and the massacre in Pittsburgh. In Europe, pogroms were encouraged and sometimes organized by the government and local authorities. In the United States, the universal condemnation of this attack and the overwhelming expressions of support and love for the Jewish community are heart warming. The fact that the American flags have been lowered to Half-Staff on every government building is very comforting and uplifting.
And yet, for a long time, as we witnessed Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, we kept saying that this will never happen in America.
Well, it has happened!
For Jews, this is the end of the Age of Innocence.
Something significant has changed in our beloved country.
I hope this is a wake up call to all Americans.
Rabbi Leonid Feldman
Temple Beth El of West Palm Beach