On Sunday morning, I woke up to a nightmare. It didn’t register at first, because “massacre” and “Orlando” don’t go together. Then I saw one person I loved after another marked “safe” on Facebook after “The Shooting in Orlando, Florida,” and I knew that the place I always associated with innocence had lost its innocence forever.
The shooter who opened fire at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse, just south of the historic downtown where I grew up, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the largest mass shooting in American history. My hometown — home to Mickey Mouse and the multicolored lighted fountain in Lake Eola Park that has graced postcards since before I was born — joins Paris and Brussels, Newtown and San Bernardino, as cities whose names are shorthand for terror.
As associate editor of Orlando’s Heritage Florida Jewish News for eight years until I moved to San Francisco in 2011, I cherish that Jewish community.
From 3,000 miles away, social media showed me Jewish friends opening their hearts to do good in the face of evil this week. Rabbis checked on congregants to make sure they were safe. People offered help to the families of victims. A Jewish artist created beautiful “Pray for Orlando” calligraphy. Friends of mine stood in line to donate blood and sang at a memorial tribute with the Orlando Gay Chorus.
The leaders of Orlando’s Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center wrote, “If it was, as many suggest, caused by disgust at sexual minorities, we can’t simply stand on the sidelines … We must be more compassionate, more vigilant, more willing to stand up and advocate for those who are the vulnerable.”
Yoni Osteen, a 30-year-old Orlandoan living in Tel Aviv, wrote on his Facebook page, “I miss you, City Beautiful, and feel your sorrow. I’m saddened that hatred has violently struck the city in which I live and my hometown within a week. This violence is nothing new to the world, and it won’t end in our lifetime, certainly not by fighting hatred with hatred.”
Orlando, and our country, have caught up with Israel, Europe and the rest of this interconnected world. We urgently need to ask ourselves questions about how we use 21st-century technologies to deal with terror, mental health concerns and the regulation of deadly weapons, while balancing the equally urgent need to uphold the rights of individual privacy. The answers, like the questions, must be practical and will not be simple.
For now, however, I agree with my friend Rabbi David Kay of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Orlando, who said this week, “Politics, ideology and the Second Amendment are conversations for another time. The dignity of the dead demands that we focus our attention fully on their needs and the needs of their loved ones.”
I think of phones gone silent with desperate families on the other end. I think of a terrified young woman playing dead beneath a pile of bodies. I think of parents burying 20-year-old children condemned only for wanting to be themselves among people who celebrated them. I think that, to them, whether the shooter was a terrorist or a religious fanatic or just desperate to kill forbidden desire in himself — or all those things — means less than nothing.
Last fall, I visited Auschwitz for the first time. Walking through the camps, I felt a need to touch every object touched by the members of our extended Jewish family murdered there. A way of honoring them by making them physically real to me. Those murders, while a uniquely horrific event, are joined to the ones in Orlando by the common thread of unreasoning hatred so strong that the hater can only find release by expunging the hated ones from the world of life.
The best answer I have is to keep fighting hate with love, to keep bringing light to darkness, over and over again in every generation, and to power that love with more passionate conviction than the haters will ever be able to summon.
I am so proud of my Orlando community for responding as the Israelis, the Parisians and so many others have. Judy Abramson, a 25-year-old Orlandoan also living in Tel Aviv, wrote this week, “The day following the Tel Aviv terror attack, people were out in the streets, soaking up the sun at the beach, and going to bars: They carried on with their beautiful lives.”
There’s a new social media postcard of the rainbow-colored fountain at Lake Eola. The hashtag is #orlandostrong.
Lyn Davidson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who served as associate editor of the Heritage Florida Jewish News in Orlando from 2004 to 2011.