Pittsburgh Reflections

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Makeshift tribute outside the Tree of Life Synagogue

“Love Thy Neighbor: No Exceptions.” I first encountered these five simple words, printed in white block letters against a bright blue background and plastered on both windows of an otherwise nondescript gas station in Pittsburgh. It was immediately clear that everyone in the community – Jewish and non-Jewish, young and old, religious and secular – was struggling to understand and respond to the horrific events that had transpired in their midst. The solemnity in the air was palpable. This was a neighborhood reeling from an unspeakable horror yet finding comfort in their greatest strength, their ability to face adversity together.

My trip to Pittsburgh was the result of my growing frustration and disgust with the empty fad of “social media activism.” Whenever tragedy strikes, which seems like all too often nowadays, we run to our computers or pick up our phones and craft some thoughtful, shareable post expressing our anger, indignation, thoughts, prayers, or offers of sympathy. This has a way of instantly alleviating our feelings of guilt and convincing us that we are exempt from taking any real action to make the world a better place, a place in which the terrible things to which we are responding don’t happen anymore.

For me, this time was different. I realized that I needed to do something concrete and meaningful, on my own behalf and on behalf of my community, to contribute in some small measure to the process of healing that was just getting underway in Squirrel Hill. So, with the blessing of the lay leadership of my congregation, the United Mashadi Jewish Community of America, I traveled to Pittsburgh to convey a message of solidarity and consolation to the families of the victims in person. Throughout my trip, I posted short videos and shared updates online, inviting the thousands of members of my community to participate from afar in my experiences. I can state without reservation that my brief visit to Pittsburgh turned out to be one of the most memorable chapters in my rabbinic career.

Whether it was upon exiting my car at a coffee shop, checking in at a hotel, or merely walking down the street, I found myself approached by strangers of all kinds in Pittsburgh who wished to connect to me, to offer me comfort and support. “Were you at the funerals yesterday?” I was asked by a Hispanic gentleman walking his dog, who didn’t even bother to say hello. I hadn’t been there, I explained. I had just then arrived from New York. But I planned to attend two funerals that day. The man merely nodded silently, knowingly, and moved on.

Then there was Rick, an evangelical Christian who had traveled from Ohio to offer a helping hand and an open heart to the Jewish community and was observing a vigil at the site of the massacre. He asked me how I was holding up, then embraced me tightly and said “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It’s hard, I responded, it’s very hard for all of us. We both shed tears, and I thanked him for his efforts on behalf of my Jewish brothers and sisters.

As I neared the synagogue where a funeral for one of the victims was about to begin, I was approached by a news reporter who was curious about my motive for coming to Pittsburgh during this time of crisis. “Did you know any of the victims personally?” he inquired. No, I answered, but an attack on one Jew anywhere is an attack on all Jews everywhere. The senseless murder of an innocent human being, let alone eleven innocent human beings, should be a concern for all of humanity. Deep down, we all intuitively grasped this. All of us – myself, the gas station owner, the dog walker, and Rick – understood that there was a reason we needed to take these events to heart and respond to them, to cry, to mourn, and to seek comfort and healing from one another and from Above.

Rebounding from the crushing force of horrendous tragedy, the greatest and most admirable qualities of the Pittsburgh community shone forth in all their glory. Jews and non-Jews of all faith traditions, affiliations and denominations joined together as one, casting divisions aside, overcoming trauma and fear and redoubling their commitment to unity, kindness, compassion and peace. The people of Pittsburgh offer us all an incredible model of coexistence and cooperation, cultural and religious diversity balanced not only by an abiding tolerance but enriched with acceptance, mutual respect, and love. We still have so much to learn from them.

Consider this: in the eyes of those with affection for Jews, we are all one. Our non-Jewish friends automatically assumed we would be mourning the tragedy at Tree of Life even though we did not know the victims personally, simply because they were Jews, and we are Jews. They offered us warm wishes and consoled us because they see all Jews as one family, regardless of denomination, background, culture or level of observance. So too, those who hate Jews see us as one nation. The murderous anti-semite on a rampage does not discriminate between Sephardic and Ashkenazic or Orthodox and Reform. The world, then, whether for us or against us, perceives us as “goy ehad ba’aretz”, a single, unique and unified people on earth. Should we not see ourselves in the same light, and work tirelessly to overcome our differences and stand together, in good times as well as in times of trouble? The inspiring response of the entire Jewish community to the calamity in Pittsburgh is evidence that we are more than capable of achieving this goal if we set our minds to it.

Each of the martyrs who perished at the Tree of Life synagogue was an irreplaceable soul whose departure from the world leaves an infinite void in its wake. Those who knew and loved the victims of the massacre are coping with a pain that is intimate, permanent and deeply personal. The lives of the survivors have been tragically and violently disrupted and will never again be the same. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity I had to hear the stories of the deceased in detail and to convey a message of consolation and solidarity to their families and communities.

Hidden beyond and nestled within these individual stories, however, is a message about what the beloved victims, and their untimely deaths, ultimately represent. The eleven holy souls are reflections of all of us, and could have been any of us. They were fathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, husbands, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and friends. They were volunteers, pillars of community, philanthropists, doctors, and teachers. They were sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah and human beings created in the image of God. The massacre was an assault on all Jews, the hatred that inspired it an affront to all of humanity. For this travesty we grieve together as one, and pray that the Creator heal our wounds and bind up our sorrows, guiding us in His light toward a better tomorrow. May the memory of the martyrs be a blessing and may they rest in peace.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.