On October 27, 2018, about a year ago, Robert Bowers, armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, entered the “Tree of Life Synagogue” in Pittsburgh, shouted anti-Semitic slurs and started shooting into a crowd of worshipers. He killed 11 congregants, wounded four police officers and two others. This was described as among the deadliest rampages ever recorded against the Jewish community in the United States. This past August, the Justice Department filed its intent to seek the death penalty for Mr. Bowers, noting that Bowers “expressed hatred and contempt toward members of the Jewish faith.”
As the anniversary of that shooting approached, The Jewish Motorcycle Alliance (JMA) with over 45 Jewish chapters worldwide recently organized the Pittsburgh Ride of Reflection to honor the fallen heroes. Over 125 people participated, riding on 71 motorcycles. This police-escorted ride through the City of Pittsburgh was meant to show support for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue. More importantly, utilizing the image of tough Jewish bikers riding on motorcycles, it was also meant to convey a message of “never again.”
Several weeks ago the reading of the Torah portion included the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did when they attacked the Jewish people. The Sefer Hachinuch counts this as a positive mitzvah obligation, number 603, in the count of mitzvot.
What was so different about the attack of Amalek? Why are we told in Devarim (25:17-19) that, of all our enemies, we are never to forget them in particular? What does it mean when the Torah foretells that Hashem will be waging war against Amalek in each and every generation? Perhaps the answer lies in the tactics that they used, terrorism.
Amalek was not a conventional army that fought the Israelite army. Traditionally, when countries go to war, they have their professional soldiers fight each other. They do not act dishonorably and exclusively target unarmed civilian populations. Amalek was different. Amalek struck the powerless civilians who straggled behind. They did not fight for land or national honor. Instead, they were vulture-like in their tactics, picking off the weak and feeble. In doing so, their aim was to demoralize the new nation of Israel by striking at the weak, the women, the children and the elderly. As such, they were one of the first recorded terrorists.
The Rambam tells us that while the actual bloodline of the Amalek nation might be lost, anyone who acts as a “tzorer Yehudi,” a persecutor of the Jews, can be considered a modern- day Amaleki.
The Gerer Rebbe once said that we know that in each and every generation there have been those who arise against us to persecute us. However, no one ever attempted to destroy the entire Jewish people the way the Nazis, yemach sh’mam, did. The formulation of “the Jewish problem,” the plotting, the propaganda and all that the Nazis did, this was part of their “master plan” to completely decimate the Jewish people.
It therefore follows that it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering Amalek by recalling what occurred in the Holocaust and keeping that historical lesson alive in our minds even in the present day, more than 75 years after the fact.
Robert Bowers was a present-day follower of Amalek. He picked on a bunch of elderly Jewish congregants assembling in their local Pittsburgh synagogue to say Kaddish and related prayers. He used sophisticated weapons against a gathering of unarmed civilians. In that sense, he did exactly what Amalek did 3,000 years ago in the desert.
Several members of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY were present to represent the club at the Pittsburgh Ride of Reflection. The Chai Riders Motorcycle Club is one of about 45 Jewish motorcycle clubs across the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia and Israel. They are participants of the umbrella Jewish Motorcyclist Alliance (JMA). Once a year the JMA clubs gather at an annual convention for the higher purpose of promoting a Holocaust memorial educational project so that the world never forgets the Shoah. Each year, a different city is chosen, one with a significant Holocaust memorial museum or educational place of interest. The Ride to Remember, a police-escorted two-hour ride involving many hundreds of Jewish motorcycle riders, is used as a means of raising significant funds for these projects. We ride proudly, fulfilling a mitzvah at the same time. The image of Jews on motorcycles brings an extra level of awareness to these events and promotes the message of “never again.”
Next year, iy”H, the JMA Ride to Remember will take place in San Diego at the end of April. The Butterfly Project will be the intended Holocaust memorial project that will be promoted. The Butterfly Project is a call to action through education, the arts and memorial making. It uses the lessons of the Holocaust to educate about the dangers of hatred and bigotry and cultivates empathy and social responsibility.
At the same time, hundreds of proud Jewish motorcyclists will visit the nearby Chabad of Poway where, unfortunately, another synagogue shooting took place this past year. Rabbi Goldstein and his congregation in Poway will be hosting the Jewish motorcycle riders from across the world for a salute and memorial service.
We cannot relegate the lessons of the Holocaust to the trash bin of history. It is not simply something that happened a long time ago, with little relevance to our time. The Anti-Defamation League reports that incidents of open anti-Semitism are rising in America and all over the world. Jews are being taunted and beaten for looking Jewish. Cemetery stones and places of Jewish business are being vandalized. This is happening not only in Europe but also on the streets of New York City. The NYPD, for example, has reported a 63% rise in the anti-Semitic hate crimes so far this year. That is why this mitzvah to remember Amalek is relevant in our time and we need to be vigilant as well. The war against Amalek-like behavior and attitudes continuously needs to be waged. We must learn the lessons of the past and continue to stay vigilant. Ultimately, with God’s help, we will be victorious.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]