What is a Legacy?

As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, we have to ask, what is the legacy of that day? How will it be remembered and taught in years to come? The answers to these questions are obviously contested and will differ depending on ones politics. The answers also depend on events that took or will take place a long time after the events of January 6. Trials of those arrested are still taking place and the political careers of those involved are undetermined.

How we think about events is often shaped by time and new developments. You may remember that a synagogue in Poway, California was attacked in 2019 by a white supremacist, resulting in the death of one person. The rabbi of the synagogue defended his congregation during the shooting and lost a finger. You may not know, however, that this week he was sentenced to a prison term of 14 years for tax and wire fraud.

Long before the attack, the rabbi had been engaged in several donation schemes to defraud the government. In addition, he received grants from the federal government that were not used properly. In one case, his synagogue was given money to improve security, but the money was never spent on the intended upgrades. The rabbi, who was hailed as a hero in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, displayed personal courage during the attack, but he had also displayed dangerous negligence in failing to improve the safety of his community as he was committing fraud.

How should we think of this rabbi, as a hero or villain? Maybe neither description is accurate because human beings are complicated. The prosecutor in the case was only seeking a sentence of home confinement because of his actions in the shooting and his cooperation in the investigation, but the judge decided on a harsher punishment because of the seriousness of the rabbi’s crimes.

The Poway shooting is often associated with the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that took place almost exactly 6 months earlier and took the lives of 11 people. While thankfully there are no charges of fraud or any other illegality at that synagogue, questions of legacy are still very much on the minds of the community. How should the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in American history be commemorated?

Last month the state of Pennsylvania allocated $6.6 million to the Tree of Life Synagogue to redevelop the site. The building has not been used in the three years since the attack as the community figures out how to rebuild. It has hired renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the master plan for Ground Zero in Manhattan, and many other memorials. His challenging task is to create a space that can act as a memorial, a learning center, and a living community.

I am intrigued to see what Libeskind can come up with. How redeeming it would be if Tree of Life became a place for people of all ages to come and learn about the dangers of anti-Semitism and hatred while also introducing them to a living, breathing, Jewish community. As the author Dara Horn so provocatively puts it in the title of her new book, People Loves Dead Jews, but our job in the Jewish community is to show them how full of life we actually are.

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