Headmaster Dennis Manning delivered a chapel talk to the Upper School on Monday, sharing his reflections in response to the mass shooting on Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which resulted in the deaths of 11 congregants and injuries to six others.
In his opening, he noted that he felt called to speak to students as a teacher and mentor. “There are times when the obligation falls to us here at school — as adults — as your mentors and teachers and coaches — to make sure we not only make you aware of events in the world, but also help you come to some understanding of them, especially when such events shake us to our core — and challenge our sense of decency, our faith, and our shared humanity,” he said.
At the conclusion of his speech, he called upon students to take a cue from the lesson that the Tree of Life congregation was studying—chapters in Genesis about Abraham welcoming strangers into his tent—and, by the end of the day, reach out to a fellow student that they do not know well and offer friendly words. “It might be hard, it might be awkward,” he said, “but that’s how we share in and reinforce our common humanity, and in so doing, fashion or create an antidote to hatred and to violence.”
Excerpts from his remarks, which appear below, were emailed to parents and shared with all faculty. In addition, a short excerpt will be published in an upcoming edition of the Jewish News, a newspaper that is mailed to the Jewish community throughout the Tidewater region; the edition will include responses to the shooting from an array of state and local leaders.
Excerpts from Upper School Chapel: A Response to the Synagogue Attack
The events in Pittsburgh — the horrific anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue — the most violent and lethal attack perpetrated against the Jewish community and people in the history of our country — sickens and repulses all of us. Once again we are called upon to try to make sense of the senseless, the barbaric, of evil incarnate. Once again my mind teems with questions . . . is nearly overwhelmed by confusion and dread.
How do we not become inured to, or desensitized by, these repeated acts — from Columbine and Sandy Hook to Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Pittsburgh? How do we square all of this with such extraordinary human vulnerability and fragility, too — worshipers gathered in a temple, a sanctuary, a place of repose, peace, and serenity . . . gathered at a Saturday morning service. All of this is made even more haunting, as we think about the worshipers’ Saturday morning lesson from the chapters of Genesis: Abraham and Sarah welcoming into their tent three strangers — feeding them, giving them shade, and washing their feet . . . The pitifully ironic themes taken up by these worshipers — the necessity of keeping our tents open…how much we need to be focused on acceptance, openness, tolerance — acknowledging, celebrating, and welcoming those least known to us. We must learn to embrace the strangers in our midst. What a powerful lesson to remember and to act upon every day in our communities.
… You need to care — Why? To invoke one of my favorite writers, 17th century Englishman and theologian John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a [part of that continent] be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a[n] entire promontory were, . . . Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind . . . .” In the Talmud, you will find its analog: “All of Israel is responsible for one another.”
You should care, too, and your natural sympathies should be stirred, because this horrific act and the victims touch us here historically — Norfolk and our community directly. We have a local, regional, and school history, all of which is intertwined with the historic Jewish community here in Tidewater. That history’s progenitor, Moses Myers, settled here in 1787 and began leading a Jewish settlement and community in Norfolk. In fact, Moses Myers’ children attended Norfolk Academy — as did his descendants…So whether you are aware of it or not, you are connected to a Jewish heritage and history — a feature of our school history of which we should all be aware and of which we should be proud.
Remember that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” What do I mean by this aphorism? To put it in a less radically theological cast—good intentions are inert, good intentions lead us nowhere. Intention needs to be translated into action, and every single one of you can exercise some moral agency, in the simple, thoughtful, loving ways in which you think about, speak, write, post, and interact with your peers. In so doing habitually, you develop a reverence and love of life and of your fellow humanity. I implore you to mobilize yourself from Good Intentions to Good Actions —the harder, more courageous part of action is to steel yourself against, and openly and actively summon your voice to repudiate, all forms of hatred and intolerance, wherever you might meet or encounter it — passivity and mutedness are tacit approval. Think of the many times during his life that the Pittsburgh murderer’s hatred went unchecked — and therefore grew into this explosive monstrousness we witnessed Saturday.
… You are part of a community here whose every action militates against the kind of inhumanity and savagery we witnessed in Pittsburgh. The monster who perpetrated this act I liken to Grendel in Beowulf — a monster who lives outside the bounds of human community and fellowship, who embodies evil. Those who believe in love and understanding absolutely must speak up and act in ways that counter the violence and the hate. Words matter. Words can have agency and action, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
One final request of you, harkening back to the lesson from Genesis that the Tree of Life congregants were studying — the importance of embracing strangers . . . Before the end of the day, I’d like for you to reach out — to speak to and engage with — a fellow student you either don’t know or don’t know very well — and just share: “I don’t know you, but I’m here for you and with you — and I care about you.” It might be hard, it might be awkward, but that’s how we share in and reinforce our common humanity, and in so doing, fashion or create an antidote to hatred and to violence.
In these most despairing times, my colleagues and I always turn our thoughts to you. You are the reason we have hope.