Mourning Jewish Martyrs in Pittsburgh

Posted on Nov 01, 2019

The memorial in Pittsburgh for the 11 Jews killed at the Tree of Life synagogue a year ago began with a solemn color guard procession down the middle aisle of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. Members of the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety Color Guard, bearing flags of the United States, the State of Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, and the City of Pittsburgh, slowly made their way to the front of the huge auditorium. They stopped and turned, presented arms on command, planted their flags, and marched out. I was moved (not for the first or last time that day) to reflect on the significance of mourning Jewish martyrs, killed in sanctification of God’s name, in synagogue on a Shabbat morning, in these United States.

That lesson was driven home over and over again throughout the day, and never more in my mind than in the moment when the color guard gave way without pause to recitation of the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew and English by a rabbi and lay leader affiliated with the two hevrot kadisha that had tended to the bodies of the shooting victims. Then, following a string quartet performance of a musical setting of Psalm 23, members of the victims’ families lit memorial candles and we watched videos featuring family members recalling the lives of those who had been killed. El Malei Rahamim was chanted by one of the rabbis who serves the Tree of Life congregation, a prayer for healing was recited by the rabbi of New Light Congregation, and a rabbi from Congregation Dor Hadash said the traditional “Gomel” blessing of thanksgiving offered by Jews who have survived danger. This is a proud Jewish community grieving the loss of its members in the way Jews have done for centuries, I reflected, and they are doing so inside a frame unique to this time and this place: 21st-century America. That is why, a few moments later, Christian and Muslim clergy read a teaching attributed to a Hasidic master, and the governor and mayor recited inspirational poems that testified to the virtues of tolerance, mutual understanding and civic harmony.

I sat near the front of the Memorial Hall, not far from the flags, in a section reserved for members of the three Tree of Life congregations. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, former executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, sat just in front of me. The Israeli consul general in New York, Danny Dayan, was nearby. I looked at the faces of those around me and was struck by how familiar they were, just as the words and tone of the speakers on the podium and in the videos were familiar. These were our people, my people—and they were grieving Jews just like us who had been murdered in a shul like the ones we attend on Shabbat mornings by a gunman who hates Jews and what Judaism stands for—specifically, in this case, the welcoming of strangers. It is a notion that takes getting used to.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who noted that he might well have been a 12th victim of the shooter, told me that he still grieves every day for those who died a year ago; many of us are still wondering, 12 months after the event, whether the guards who began to stand outside our synagogues, JCCs, and schools soon after the Tree of Life shooting will become a permanent feature of American Jewish life. Will uniformed police bearing submachine guns one day stand outside our institutions as they do in Europe—and as they did outside the JCC in Manhattan a few weeks ago when I emerged after a session at the fitness room? How things have changed in only a year. How our perspective on Jewish life in America has changed. How much communal effort and funding must now go to readiness and protection.

Emphasis was not placed on such concerns last Sunday in Pittsburgh. The theme was “Remember, Repair, Together”; the day’s activities included community service at various sites around the city in the morning; afternoon Torah study at Congregation Rodef Shalom, led by teachers representing a variety of denominations and perspectives; and an early evening memorial service at Soldiers & Sailors Hall. The commemoration was devoted to the victims, their families, and the community, and remembrance was very much the order of the day, along with celebration of the wider Pittsburgh community that had rallied to support Jews in the days immediately following and throughout the past year—relationships that, I was told repeatedly, were longstanding in the city. Antisemitism is out there in America for all to see in 2019, but this day carried the message that hatred of Jews is not the prevailing sentiment among Americans, not by a long shot. Recent data confirms this, and the Jews of Pittsburgh know it from personal experience. Last Sunday they wanted to offer testimony.

There is of course a larger framework to the story of October 27, 2018: the long, unhappy history of antisemitism and persecution of Jews in which the Pittsburgh shooting has now taken its place. Knowledge of that history, I think, explains why so many Jews all over America gathered in their synagogues on the Shabbat following the shooting. If I am right, they wanted to affirm, together, that they were proud Jews and that they would neither hide their Judaism nor give up on the promise of America. But they also brought a shudder of recognition to the gathering. Things like this had happened before in Jewish history. But now it was close at hand, now it was us. The portion from the Torah on which I chose to focus my teaching session last Sunday afternoon—the one that congregants at Tree of Life would have read and studied had they not been prevented from doing so by the shooter, Vayera—includes several passages that highlight complex interactions between Abraham’s family and the local inhabitants among whom he lives that anticipate the events of last October 27, and this October 27, with remarkable prescience.

Soon after Abraham goes to war on the side of the kingdom of Sodom in order to rescue his nephew Lot, who had decided to live in that immoral place, God’s angels come to Sodom to rescue Lot once more before God destroys the city by fire. The angels are threatened by townspeople who complain when Lot seeks to protect his guests, that “the fellow came here as an alien and already he acts the ruler”—not the last time such a charge has been lodged against Jews. A second episode: Abraham tells the local king Avimelekh that Sarah is his sister and not his wife, suspecting that the king would otherwise kill him in order to take Sarah. (Abraham had done the same with Pharaoh.) God warns Avimelekh in a dream not to touch Sarah and orders the king to save his own life by securing Abraham’s intercession on his behalf. “Why did you do this?” Avimelekh demands of Abraham. “I thought,” Abraham replies, “surely there is no fear of God in this place.” Was he right? Is one gentile king or kingdom the same as every other one? A final episode, which comes right before the Binding of Isaac: Avimelekh appears at Abraham’s tent one ay accompanied by the chief of his army. “God is with you in all you do. Therefore, swear you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants . . . and with the land in which you have sojourned.” Abraham swears—and then brings up the matter of wells of water belonging to him that Avimelekh’s servants have stopped up.

Jewish history drives one to draw the obvious lesson: the gentile king makes a deal with the Jews residing in his midst because they have God on their side and can bring them blessing. But American Jewish history requires one to add that America is different. Pittsburgh is not the Land of Gerar, where Abraham dwelled, “the land of estrangement.” Jews enjoy constitutional protections here and now—and a large measure of social acceptance, respect, and affection by gentiles—sorely lacking in most of the lands where Jews have lived in the past. The massive police presence surrounding the hall last Sunday was there to protect the community, and, I think, to demonstrate that the city would not let the antisemites (or, by extension, other forces of hate) win the day.

I hope that Jews will trust America on this, even while protecting ourselves, with the backing of law enforcement agencies, against our enemies, and that we will take advantage of the opportunity America affords to build strong communities of Torah like the one on display in Pittsburgh last weekend, doing good works for ourselves and for the local communities and the larger society of which we are, for once, a full part. I left Pittsburgh buoyed by that opportunity, even as I felt the pain the day carried. “We are healing,” declared one of the mourners, “and we are on our way to being stronger than ever.” May it only be so.