Though Emanuel AME Church is only a few blocks from temple, I can go days, weeks, without passing it. Tonight, after hearing that a jury found Dylan Roof guilty of all 33 charges he faced, I felt called to its historic building like there was an oscillating beacon of light emanating from its stately steeple.

And maybe, on some level, there is.

So many have been drawn to the doors of Mother Emanuel in the past 18 months. Though far less frequently now, people still place flowers, leave cards, take photos. Visiting groups from all over the country specifically come to offer their support, participate in study sessions and worship, offer their love and hands on the road to healing.

But perhaps we’re not meant to follow the beacon to its source; perhaps we’re meant to follow the path it illuminates and journey out.

The beacon from the steeple of Emanuel is a light that shines on all of our communities, all of our institutions, all of the systems upon which this nation is built. It’s a light that shines to the North and West, not only in the South. It’s a light that illuminates policing and housing and education and voting. It’s a light meant to reach into the small nooks and crannies so easily, so often, hidden in shadow.

Today’s verdict in the trial of Dylan Roof consoles us that the most extreme act of hatred – an abhorrent and devastating massacre – can be called out for the racism that it is. But the absence of a verdict in the trial of Michael Slager a week and a half ago confirms our fears that anything less than a massacre, a confession, a supremacist manifesto can still masquerade as something else.

Today’s verdict is significant. None of us will ever forget what happened at Mother Emanuel on June 17, 2015, and justice has been served. But what about the more insidious acts and examples of racism that abound each and every day?

There, my friends, the jury is still out.


One enters the exhibits of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the  fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.