Five days after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I teared up at Starbucks from a mere glance at the New York Times. On the front page is a photo of visibly distressed young girls saying Psalms at the intense back-to-back funerals. I know these young girls. We all know them. We thought we were giving them a different world.
Does every generation think that it will bequeath an upgraded reality to the world? That the next generation will build upon the good works of the previous generation until the end of time? That’s what I had thought.
Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor of psychology, writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that the world is getting better. “In fact,” he stated in a recent interview, “rates of war have been roller-coastering downward since 1946; rates of American homicide have plunged since 1992; and rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy, and dictatorship, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased — not to zero, but by a lot.”
Cold comfort this week. There is a hatred in the air that is choking this country. A wave of ugliness has been unleashed into the atmosphere, and it is seeping out of the crevices. There seems to be license to say out loud what has been till now hidden in the dark chambers of the deranged, deluded, and disturbed. That the manifestation of this horror happened to Squirrel Hill exemplifies the notion that the greatest evil is indeed attracted to the greatest good.
I grew up in Squirrel Hill. It’s a magical place. I had a charmed childhood of community and connection. And its appeal did not dwindle with time; we moved back to offer our kids the same warmth and coziness for 11 wonderful years. No place is perfect — but it was close.
You can walk to the JCC, the library, all the Jewish day schools, synagogues of every denomination, shop in kosher stores, and meet lots of people you know all along the way. You can sit on your porch and greet your neighbors on the way to their churches and schools, and kids play with everyone on the block in the parks and backyards.
Because, you see, this is the neighborhood. Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. He lived on my street, Beechwood Boulevard. He voted at our school, Hillel Academy, on Election Day. His spirit animated our childhood. There is a Talmudic saying that God sends the remedy ahead of the malady. The film about his life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, began running in theaters this summer.
We are in a painful place right now, and as Mr. Rogers would say, “There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”
Time to wrestle. Mr. Rogers preaches civility, manners, and kindness. Parents, you are our first line of defense. Here are five action items to start today — and these are relevant to our actual children as well as the child inside each of us that needs a little reining in.
1. Always say please and thank you. Insist on niceties at home and outside.
2. Do not speak badly about people, especially in front of children — they hear you!
3. Make sure you look into the face of the person serving you. This will mean that you will have to put your phone down.
4. Do not hear a bad or cruel word without responding. We cannot stand idly by the indignities of others.
5. Be a role model of love and kindness every day, wherever you go.
As Rabbi Menachem Creditor sings in his song, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh”:
I will build this world from love
And you must build this world from love
And if we build this world from love
Then God will build this world from love.
I still want to believe that we can change this world for the better and build a kinder tomorrow, one animated by the sentiments of this anthem.