Anchorage rabbi: Political polarization threatens to ‘rip us to shreds’

The man charged with killing 11 in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend appeared in court Monday, while people still reeled from the news.

There was shock and confusion in Alaska as well. Rabbi Michael Oblath of Congregation Beth Sholom said he asked police to send a patrol car to sit outside Saturday services for his congregation, which is the largest and oldest Jewish congregation in the state.

In a phone interview with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove on Monday, Oblath recounted how he heard the news, and what the congregation was talking about in its wake.

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OBLATH: And then I saw mentioning of shots near a synagogue is what it said, and then I sat down I spent three hours in front of the TV, upset and, you know, mentally connecting to the people I know that are from Pittsburgh, and there are, some members of our congregation that are, and they were affected by it.

And so, you know, my thoughts would turn out to them. But at the same time, you know, not really knowing what was going on. Other than that there was a shooter it’s very, very disconcerting to hear the term active shooter involved with the congregation, and frustrated and not quite knowing what to do. And I’m not sure I still know what to do it.

You know, it’s just a matter of recognizing that we have to be available to reach out to those in our communities that are hurting as a result of this and to be able to try to heal as much as we can and to try to figure out how to not get there again.

GROVE: What’s the conversation been among your congregation about this?

OBLATH:  The mood in the country is a mood where this kind of violence and this kind of threat is sitting there, not just right under the surface, but right on top. As this past week has shown, several incidents during the week, have indicated that, and even that over the past several years have shown a marked increase in this kind of violence and this type of openness in the society for people who normally wouldn’t be doing this, because they’d be hiding under their rocks.

But at the same time this moment in our society when, society is so split, it’s so polarized, that you have people on both sides hating each other and not willing to talk to each other and being willing to express emotions of and attitudes of violence.

GROVE: And why do you think that is? I mean you’re saying that there’s hatred on both sides of the political spectrum, but do you think that there’s a reason why this is more a part of our lives now?

OBLATH: People in power who have the ability to change it, or have the ability to stop it or to put controls on our society that should be there, are not acting because they have too many strong self-interests that keep them from seeing the greater picture of what our country is about. And I’ve seen that on both sides of the aisle. I don’t like it. This is how we behave when we’re in positions of power, we have the power to exert it over others, we do, and we often times do it abusively and violently. And you can look at history and see that it’s true.

GROVE: Today the Anchorage Police Department said they were going to step up patrols near houses of worship. And I guess I have to ask, I mean, do you feel safe in your place of worship after this?

OBLATH: I feel safe as safe in the synagogue as I feel anywhere else. I mean, this is something that Jewish communities experienced stuff like this for centuries, and it’s still something that when it happens you you become fearful. And at the same time we understand that it happens and we try to really stay ahead of the fear in a sense or work through it to be able to try to change our society, as much as we can have any influence to do it, or to educate people or to hopefully bring people together in a way of being able to talk to each other and bridging that gap is what needs to be done.

And talk is people who are citizens of a country that should and has for the last 200-plus years been able to work these things out and be a country and not be these two magnet poles that are pulling people in different directions that just rip us to shreds.

GROVE: Rabbi Michael Oblast of Congregation Beth Sholom, Rabbi Oblast, thanks for being here.

OBLATH: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks so much.