As so often happens in the digital age, the news came first via an alert on my cell phone. “Shooting at Pittsburgh synagogue, fatalities reported.” I was in Connecticut that Saturday morning, sitting in a hotel room with my wife, getting ready to celebrate my mother’s 97th birthday with my family. The name Tree of Life Synagogue sounded familiar, so I asked my wife if she remembered if that was the synagogue where we had attended the Bat Mitzvahs of the daughters of very close friends of ours some years earlier.
As a Jew, I have witnessed many acts of anti-Semitism in my lifetime. Most of these, like the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, or the white nationalists in Charlottesville last year who marched and chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” I was not a direct witness to. Others I experienced firsthand, such as when I was called a “kike,” “Christ-killer,” or “hebe” when I was a child growing up in a predominantly-Christian community, where I was one of only two Jews in my high school graduating class of over 200 students. Or the comments I’ve had directed to me as an adult, sometimes made supposedly in jest but often with a twinge of the speaker’s true beliefs behind them, “You know, the Jews do control most of the banks and Hollywood.”
As the alerts continued to come in to our phones, the horror of what occurred in Squirrel Hill came to be known. It became clear that this was not a random shooting. The media reported very quickly that the shooter had spouted anti-Semitic epithets as he was firing on his victims, gathered in that synagogue for their weekly Shabbat service, hate speech that he repeated to the police after he was captured. As my wife and I dug into our memories, and with the help of Google maps, we were able to confirm that this was in fact the synagogue we had visited on a number of occasions with our friend. As we did this, the count of the number of victims – killed and wounded – began to climb.
As many do when they have a personal connection with a developing tragedy like this, we wanted to reach out to our friends to try to contact them. We knew that they no longer attended that synagogue regularly, as they had joined another in Squirrel Hill, but we were still worried that there was a possibility they could have been there. They still maintained a connection with it, and maintained friendships with many of the members there. Could they have been joining one of those friends that Saturday morning? As the news came out that there was a bris – the ritual circumcision and naming of a Jewish baby boy eight days after his birth – at Tree of Life that morning, we worried that perhaps the parents of that boy could have been friends of theirs.
We knew, though, that it would be hard to reach them. They are Orthodox Jews and very observant of the Sabbath, which means they do not use any electronics from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. My wife texted the wife of the couple, in the hope that perhaps she would break this commandment because of the gravity of the situation and because she knew people would be trying to get in touch with her. Even in doing so, however, we knew it was unlikely we would hear from her. Whether she was at Tree of Life, or her synagogue, or anywhere else, we knew she would likely have left her phone at home.
After an agonizing three or so hours, we did finally hear from her. When the shooting started at Tree of Life, the police in Pittsburgh wisely went to the other synagogues in the city and placed them on lockdown. When she was able to get home, she did choose to use her phone, and reached out to her friends to assure them that she and her family were safe. We heaved a sigh of relief, while still in shock over those who were not so fortunate.
As we continued to follow the story throughout the day, my wife and I had the same reaction that we did following the events in Charlottesville last year. “We need to go to services Friday night,” I said to her. We are not weekly synagogue goers; we attend Shabbat services maybe once a month or so, and like most other American Jews, attend High Holiday services every year. But we knew that by the end of the week we were going to need to process what happened, and grieve, with other Jews.
We realized this long before the #ShowUpForShabbat hashtag was launched, encouraging Jews (and others) to attend Shabbat services this past weekend, to show solidarity for the victims of the shooting and to show other anti-Semitic, white supremacists that we are not afraid. For us, it was not this militancy that motivated us, but rather a simple belief that we needed to be with “our people,” to share with others who had experienced anti-Semitism in their lives, who have the common bond of being part of a group that has suffered so much discrimination and violence throughout history.
As the news from Squirrel Hill continued to flood in during the week, many things struck me. All of the victims were older, not surprising for a synagogue like Tree of Life where many of the regular parishioners, the ones who can always be counted on to be there every Saturday morning to make a minyan, are the elderly. The oldest victim, Rose Mallinger, was 97 years old, the same age as my mother’s birthday that we celebrated last weekend. This victim was a woman who had lived through so much – the Depression, World War II and the Holocaust (contrary to many of the news reports, she was not a Holocaust survivor), the founding of the state of Israel – only to lose her life not to old age but to the bullets of a hater.
The images that circulated on the Internet following this tragedy were also striking. First it was the pictures and videos of the police responding. Then the face of the perpetrator, the man who screamed “All Jews must die.” A day or two later it was the faces of the victims as their identifies became known. Next it was the memorials, full with candles, flowers, and Stars of David, throughout Squirrel Hill. Then it was the funerals for each of the dead.
The image that struck me the hardest, was the picture in yesterday’s New York Times I’ve included above, showing the unfilled grave of Rose Mallinger. It’s a simple picture, no people in it, nobody in tears, no groups of individuals holding onto each other. Just an empty hole, surrounded by the autumn leaves that had fallen to the ground, awaiting the burial of this 97 year-old woman who lived through so much and died, like the others, so needlessly.
During the week, my wife decided that she needed to go to Pittsburgh to be with our friends, to be there to support them and grieve with them during Shabbat, so she flew there. I couldn’t go, so I instead went to our synagogue, The Kitchen, with one of my daughters. I knew many people would be there; while a typical Friday night service may bring out 100 or so, this Friday night there were likely over 300 people there, a standing-room-only response to the tragedy. I don’t know how many were there in because of the hashtag, or how many were there like me, just needing to be with other Jews.
It turned out to be everything I needed. I could be with others who shared my common experience as a Jew. I’m sure there were many there who were not Jewish as well, but were there to show their solidarity and support. I took great solace in the prayers that I knew so well, many of which I have been reading and singing for over 50 years. My heart warmed as hundreds of people sang Lachah Dodi, the prayer that we sing to welcome Shabbat every week. At The Kitchen the prayer is sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a beautiful song that can be so comforting, and indeed was on this evening.
I cried along with others as Rabbi Noa Kushner read the names of the 11 victims before we said the Mourner’s Kaddish, the traditional prayer one says while in mourning for a relative who had recently died, or on the annual anniversary of their death. I was able to say the Kaddish not just for the victims, but for my mother-in-law as well, who had died 15 years ago this week.
I know that gun violence like this will happen again soon, when a group will be targeted not by randomness, but because of who they are. Next time it may once again be Jews, or it could be others who have been the victims of so much violence and hatred in this country, whether they be African Americans (a group also targeted in recent years in their place of worship in the Charleston shootings), immigrants, Muslims, members of the LTBTQ community, or others. I don’t know if our politicians will have the guts to stand up and say this has to stop, and take actual action to deal with the plague of gun violence in our country. But until they do, we know that at some point in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves mourning people whose names, faces, and stories we do not yet know, but soon enough will.