United in St. Louis

In January, 48 Jewish Community Centers in 26 states reported receiving nearly 60 bomb threats. On Monday, vandals in St. Louis committed a senseless property crime with enormous symbolism – damaging more than 150 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.

In December, I had the privilege of visiting Israel with a group of fellow legislators on a mission with the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. It was an amazing and inspiring trip. We met with Israeli businesses that had expanded in Missouri. We visited universities and social service agencies that gave us ideas for better governance here. We were pilgrims to Christian holy sites.

And we also learned about Jewish culture – including millennia of persecution. One night about midway through our visit, we visited a kibbutz (a co-op) far from a large city and came upon a statute that, without context, would not cause a second look. It was a woman with elongated arms and fingers grasping a child’s back, and the child reaching up to her shoulders.

In the 1940s, the kibbutz included many Holocaust survivors and individuals that were able to get out of Europe before the full Nazi wrath claimed their lives and the lives of their families.  Of course, not everyone escaped. During our visit we spoke to one such individual, now in her 80’s, who explained the sculptor created the statue based on a letter from a victim of the Holocaust where she explained that her arms just were not long enough to save the children. To me, the statute was symbolic of both the tragedy of the Holocaust and the hope of Israel – a place where her arms would be long enough.

I was also struck by our visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The museum takes each visitor through the history of the Holocaust – and the systematic march from words and rhetoric to legal oppression to outbursts of violence to organized “re-location” to the gas chambers. The most heart-wrenching items were the little things the victims carried – their personal effects, the photographs in their wallets that showed happier times. The museum is designed to put you in that place. In one section, literally in their shoes. What would you take with you? What would you say to your loved ones? What would you have been thinking if you were in their shoes? What would you have done? Would have been willing to leave everything you knew, where you had lived your whole life, before it was too late? If you were a non-Jew, would you have had the courage to help hide and protect?

Actions, words, and symbolism matter.

It is embarrassing that something like this happened in our state. What happened next is inspirational. One course of action would be to try to ignore it. Missourians of different faiths joined hands to make things better – confronting hate with unity. On Tuesday, Rep. Stacey Newman had an impassioned moment of personal privilege on the House floor describing the hurt that she felt. On Wednesday, Gov. Greitens and Vice President Pence joined thousands of Missourians of different faiths to show defiant opposition as well as to help rebuild this sacred resting place. In these divided times, let us never forget our shared humanity and values that cross sectarian, ideological, and partisan lines.