Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness: “The Jewish Nurse” Shares His Story

“Darkness,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Case in point: Ari Mahler. A friend recently shared the story of the nurse who treated the killer who had just shot up the Pittsburgh synagogue. In following up, I found this original story by Angelina Gibson on Nurse.org. I can’t tell it better than she can:

“In a country that is no longer shocked by mass murders and random shootings at places that should feel safe, from schools to synagogues to yoga studios, there is one act that has risen out from amongst the violence that is perhaps the most shocking act of all:

Kindness and compassion. 

Ari Mahler, an ER nurse from Pittsburg, was one of three Jewish doctors and nurses who cared for Robert Bowers, the shooter who killed 11 Jewish worshipers and injured 6 at the Tree of Life Congregation on October 27th. After Bowers, who had a long history of anti-Semitism and posted “I’m going in,” stormed into the synagogue and began shooting, a police shoot-out occurred and it’s thought that Bowers was shot by officers

As a result of his wounds, he was taken to Allegheny General Hospital to be treated, where Bowers continued his tirade against Jewish people, even reportedly shouting, “Death to Jews” as he was wheeled into the hospital. And it was at that moment, when a man so filled with hate that he murdered, that Mahler could have chosen so many paths in his role as a nurse. He could have declined the patient assignment, he could have hurled cruel words back, or he could have taken the patient but failed to care for him properly. 

Instead, Mahler chose to rise above hate and instead, cared for Bowers, in his own words, with “empathy.” 

In a revealing Facebook post, Mahler described how he was the Jewish nurse who cared for one of the country’s most hate-filled shooters and how the interaction with Bowers was a deliberate one meant to honor the lives that had been lost, not add to the hate that took them.

“I am The Jewish Nurse,” Mahler began his post. “Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one that people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, ‘Death to all Jews,’ as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life.”

From Ari Mahler’s Facebook page

Mahler went on to describe how he was nervous for writing up a post on what happened with Bowers, noting his past growing up Jewish, with a father who was a Rabbi, and experiencing anti-Semitism. 

“I found drawings on desks of my family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on my locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, ‘Die Jew. Love, Hitler.’,” Mahler explained. “It was a different time back then, where bullying was not monitored like it is now. I was weak, too. Rather than tell anyone, I hid behind fear. Telling on the people who did this would only lead to consequences far worse.”

He then stated that sadly, he was not shocked by the fact that this shooting took place, mentioning today’s climate as one that “doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility… I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving,” he added. 

“ I WANTED HIM TO FEEL COMPASSION. I CHOSE TO SHOW HIM EMPATHY.”

And despite the fact that Mahler has been lauded a hero for his care of Bowers, he challenged the public sentiment who praised him because he is Jewish. 

‘I’m sure he [Bowers] had no idea I was Jewish,” he wrote. “Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?” 

HE DIDN’T SEE “EVIL”

Citing HIPPA, Mahler also added that he couldn’t reveal the specifics of his interaction with Bowers, but did say that when he looked into his eyes, he didn’t see “evil” and like the professional nurse that he is, he didn’t base his care for Bowers on who he was or what he had done. 

“I can tell you that as his nurse, or anyone’s nurse, my care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you’re not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you’re lying on my stretcher,” he went on to say. 

LOVE

In the comment section of his post, Mahler received an outpouring of love and support for his actions and his care of the mass murderer, including from his fellow Jewish nurses. “As a Jewish nurse I applaud you for doing the right thing,” wrote Janet. “It is what we do. We may crumble later but we do our job and do it well.” 

For those who are wondering just why Mahler acted the way he did and chose to go public with his decision to treat a murderer with any shred of kindness at all, the nurse minced no words in explaining exactly why he did what he did:

“Love,” he said. “That’s why I did it.”

“Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

Amen. And thank you, Ari.

A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

Siege Gardens in Syria: The Ultimate Expression of Gardens as Hope

The new shoots of spring are an ancient metaphor of life and renewal, from the earliest human literature. Spring equals hope. Even the word, “spring,” connotes energy and forward movement.

What gardener doesn’t feel the joy of new produce, fresh from the earth? Or what eater, for that matter? Even now, when I’m not currently gardening (although I am enjoying the garden my son planted, my “grandgarden,”), I feel that rush of excitement. “Ooh! Baby greens!”

Now imagine what that means in wartime. In the middle of a besieged city. Last week I read this story in Al Jazeera online, and I knew I had to share it. 

The Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, according to the Al Jazeera story by Annia Ciezadlo, was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for displaced Palestinians, taking on a sad permanence as the Palestinian non-homeland issue calcified. But with the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Yarmouk stepped into a horrible new role:

When the rebellion against Assad began, in March 2011, displaced Syrians flooded into Yarmouk. Opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army began to clash with local pro-regime militias. On Dec. 16, 2012, the government sent Mig fighter jets to bomb a mosque, a hospital and four schools where displaced people had sought shelter.

From then on, the siege tightened every day. The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo. They would open bags of bread and count the pieces to make sure there were no more than 10.

Here’s what Yarmouk looked like, thanks to Assad’s fighter jets:

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

Into this desperate situation stepped the gardeners. According to the story, rooftop siege gardens were planted gradually, secretly, and communally. I’ll let Annia Ciezadlo tell it in her words:

“You can say that this was something psychological,” says Osama Jafra, the alias of an organizer for the Jafra Foundation, a community development group that started several of Yarmouk’s large communal gardens.

About six months into the siege, around the end of June 2013, a neighbor hailed Jafra on the street. Since Jafra worked for a charity group, the man asked, could he get him money to buy seeds?

“Why?” Jafra asked.

“Come. I’ll show you,” the man replied.

He took Jafra to one of the schools that warplanes had bombed six months earlier. In the abandoned courtyard, a playground was alive with flowers and greenery. With seeds, they could transform it into a vegetable garden.

Jafra made a deal with his neighbor: I’ll get you $50 for seeds if you agree to share them. The next day, Jafra recruited staffers and volunteers to cleaned up the camp to cultivate the abandoned play area. Neighbors saw what they were doing and began to help. Even children pitched in. They finished in four hours.

“When the people and the children started to work with us, everybody was so happy,” says Jafra. They planted dandelions, parsley, tomatoes, eggplants and lentils. They called it the Palestine Garden.

And so a transformation began among the urban inhabitants of Yarmouk. They discovered the secrets of farming, like the best time to water the garden — at night, so the precious water would not evaporate. They learned how certain plants, like fava beans, can renew exhausted soil. They found seeds and farming skills among the rural farmers who had fled to Yarmouk when drought and later war engulfed the Syrian countryside.

This story of hope and redemption has a terrible dark side.

In besieged Yarmouk, gardening is a matter of life or death. In June 2014, a government shell killed three men just outside one of the neighborhood gardens. At least two people have been shot and killed by snipers while foraging for wild greens. And anyone providing food, water or medical care is especially at risk of being assassinated, kidnapped by armed groups or disappeared by the government. In the first three months of 2015, as fighters from ISIL and Jahbat Al-Nusra were infiltrating the camp and preparing to take over, at least 10 nonviolent activists were killed.

That’s right. In Syria, gardening can get you killed. And yet…people garden.

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

I cannot think of a more powerful emblem of hope. Stories of war usually make me feel helpless, and this one no less so. I wish I could send these people some seeds, or money for equipment–anything to ease their task. But at the same time, reading this, I feel something more: gratitude and awe for these folks in Yarmouk, fighting a dictator one lettuce at a time.