In 1999, white supremacists fire-bombed three Jewish synagogues in Sacramento. The hate crime rattled communities of faith and the region at large. But it also brought Sacramento together.
Rabbi Mona Alfi had just started at Congregation B’Nai Israel at the time. She says she remembers “being embraced by the larger community,” a response that she’s seeing again this week, after Saturday’s mass shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Rabbi Alfi is now one of the community’s interfaith leaders, and on Monday she looked back at the ’99 attack — and looked forward to discuss how the country can respond to Pittsburgh.
The following is an edited version of CapRadio’s conversation with Rabbi Alfi. You can hear the whole discussion by pushing play above.
Nick Miller: Thank you for taking the time today. I know it's been a difficult few days. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about some of the conversations you're having with congregants.
Rabbi Mona Alfi: Conversations that I've been having with my congregants have been really heartbreaking. To me, to be Jewish is to feel that you are part of an extended family, that for many of us being Jewish is more than our religion. It is also our ethnicity. And when we look at the faces of the people who are murdered, they feel familiar to a lot of us. They look like people that we see in our own synagogue. They they look like people we know, people that we're related to. And so it feels deeply personal.
We bring our children into our houses of worship. It's a place that we look to as a place to to find solace and comfort. And so to suddenly have a synagogue in the United States to be a place where a massacre occurred, it's a real shock.
What do you tell your congregants when they come to you experiencing shock and grief, and just disbelief.
Even after we heard the news on Saturday, we continued to have services. We celebrated a bar mitzvah on Saturday morning. We continue to find comfort in our faith. We continue to find comfort even coming to synagogue, even as we may express our fears and our concerns when we come together. It helps. It also helps that pretty much everybody I know has been receiving phone calls or visits or conversations with non-Jewish neighbors and non-Jewish friends, and the outreach of love and support has been incredibly comforting.
You have congregants who were around in 1999, which was one of the worst acts of anti-Semitism the country's ever seen. Has this been part of the discussions at your synagogue these past couple days?
Oh, that's absolutely been a part of our conversation. I was actually a new rabbi at B’nai Israel when the fire bombings occurred in June of 1999. So that is an event that has shaped my own rabbinate, my own experience of what it means to be a part of a congregation. So that has definitely been very much very much at the front of the minds of those of us who experienced it.
Tell me more about the process that your community went through then.
There's a lot of similarities to the way that we processed information then and now. Initially, profound shock and disbelief that these sort of things could happen in our country and in our city. And then of a feeling of being embraced by the larger community. It happened then, and it's happening now — that profound and very quick response. Every minister and imam and reverend that I know has has reached out and it's been incredibly beautiful.
Sacramento has a unique interfaith community.
I think we have something special here in Sacramento. I'd like to believe that it comes from our roots from the Gold Rush. The fact that we all come from someplace else, that we have all come and chosen to make this our home, to make it our community, I think that's part of it. I know B’nai Israel has a very long history of working with other faith communities going all the way back to the Gold Rush. And I think that is part of our culture here. A desire to reach out to one-another, to work together for the greater good.
I want to explore our political climate and its relationship to hate crimes. When people ask you about this, or when that issue comes up in your in your life, among friends or at the congregation, how do you explore this topic.
Personally, I think there is absolutely a correlation. There was a time in our country where people of different political beliefs and different political parties could be married to each other, could be friends with each other or neighbors with each other, where we knew how to talk with each other as opposed to at each other or around each other. And I think that's something that's really lacking in our society today: a desire to meaningfully engage with people with different beliefs and different backgrounds. I think I think we're somehow losing that ability to look for what we share rather than focusing on the things that make us different.
When you look back to ’99, was it different?
You know, I had a wonderful conversation last year with with the director of the California Museum, and at one point it felt like the urgency for the unity museum didn't feel so strong. It felt like we as a society were moving forward in a very positive direction. And in the last few years the purpose of the Unity Center, which came out of the fire bombings in 1999 became more apparent, and I personally have come to realize that you can't if there are values you believe in. You have to always be vigilant in protecting those values. If you believe in cooperation, if you believe in democracy, if you believe and working together, you can't just do it once. It's not a one-off activity. It's something that you have to constantly work on, like a garden. You have to tend to. You need to take care of it. And I think perhaps we had taken certain things for granted in our country, that all of us are responsible for the tone and tenor of our society.
How can Sacramento lead, or how can how can we even make an imprint in the national conversation. I feel like maybe that's a shared frustration in our community now, when we see an incident like what happened in Pittsburgh, even though we have strong unity locally.
I actually think that's something that's special about California. I don't think that many communities in California strive for that. And I think you're right. I think 1999 was a wakeup call for Sacramento and that, locally, I think that we have very much been working together and being vigilant of strengthening our ties.
But we don't just live in a city. We don't just live in a state. We live in a country. And I think that our whole country needs to look harder about what it means to be connected to one another, rather than hunkering down in our own little silos. We really need to do more reaching out one toward the other. I wish I had the answer. If I did, I'd be in politics instead of religion.
I was listening to the head of the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, on Sunday. He was on Meet the Press. And I paraphrase, but he shared the concern that there's this normalization of anti-Semitism that's occurring in the past few years, and that's a shocking statement for to hear, because, I mean, it's just shocking. So, I want to ask if that's something that you or your congregation is experiencing, is this sentiment shared.
Oh, absolutely. There is nothing he said that surprised me at all.
One of the things that I do in our synagogue is I teach our tenth graders. I spend a year studying with them, and for the last decade every single one of my students — and my students are from all over, our families live all over the county — every single one of my students in the last 10 years has reported to me stories of anti-Semitic behavior or words that have been said that they have been directed toward them while at school. And that was a shock.
That is definitely a shift from the decade before. And it's not just toward Jewish students. I mean, a general intolerance has been growing and increasing. But every student had negative experiences that were anti-Semitic from a classmate directed toward them.
Why do you think this is happening?
I know when I was growing up, we had more shared experiences as a society. … There's not enough of us actually sitting face to face with each other. There's not enough of us coming together for community events. There's not enough of us really doing the work of building a community, which is based on spending time with each other. And I think there's been a breakdown in our society, that we only have to talk or engage with the people who are just like us. And that's not healthy.
Does Pittsburgh shake us to change?
I hope so. I really hope that there can be some good that comes out of this horrific act.
But how many shootings have we had? How many horrific acts that we had in this country last week alone? You know, there was a murder of two African-Americans while shopping at a Kroger's, by a white supremacist. It didn't even make the top of the news, because there were so many other horrific things going on at the same time. I'm hoping this shakes us up.
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