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What Unites Us In the Wake of the Tree of Life Tragedy

We asked local faith leaders for their response to the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill –– and how we can come together and more forward as a community.



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When innocent people are murdered because of their beliefs, it’s hard not to lose our faith — in mankind, our community and maybe even our religion. 

In the wake of the anti-Semitic attack on Oct. 27 on worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill that left 11 people dead and six injured, Pittsburghers were shaken. The most profound impact was on the targeted Jewish community. But people of all faiths and even those who don’t follow a particular religion were stricken by what happened.

While this was an attack on people practicing their religious faith, it went further and assaulted the foundation of our community. 

In response, we asked a diverse group of people from different religious practices to address this crisis of faith with the hope that their words will help heal and restore not only communities of believers but everyone. Because what keeps Pittsburgh surviving and thriving is our faith in each other.
 

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I don’t think I’ve properly contextualized it for myself yet. I have not been able to really grieve, to think about and to put into context since we heard the news. It’s been, essentially, non-stop work. My number one priority is to make sure the students at Hillel Academy have the support that they need.

A lot of that is, probably, pretending like I’m handling this better than I am. I personally talked to all the students in the school the first day and I’m going to do that again tomorrow (five days after the massacre). Kids need routine. Kids need structure. And it depends on their age. The goal of crisis intervention is to get people to rely on their natural supports, and, thank G-d, we have those supports here. 

What moving on means is difficult. It’s a process, and it comes in waves. With younger kids, well, they’re kids. You sit down and talk to a second grader about it and they’re sad and they’re distraught, and three minutes later they’re playing dodgeball. That’s normal. 

As for faith, it’s meeting everyone on their level. This is hard for the kids. My 5-year-old son asked me on Sunday night, “Why did G-d put the bad man into the shul?” That’s a hard one. So how does faith help? The way I was raised and the way I’m raising my children is that faith guides everything that we do. There’s a sense of Jewish pride that we’re trying to instill. It’s hard for kids to understand why people would hate us just because we are Jewish. All the support we’ve gotten from the community, not just Jews, is that people love us because we’re Jewish, too. 
 

“As for faith, it’s meeting everyone on their level.”

I teach a Jewish history class. It’s very easy — you look at a lot of standard Jewish history and you read about 3,000 years of persecution of the Jews. I like to reframe it as 3,000 years of perseverance. 3,000 years of moving forward. 3,000 years of overcoming challenges and obstacles. That’s something that we’ve been discussing with our students. Thank G-d this is, for most of us, the first anti-Semitic experience we’ve had. Definitely the most horrific. 

In terms of faith, every kid is going to connect to this differently. The classic Jewish response is prayer for the deceased, for the family of the deceased and for us. It gives us comfort and it gives us hope. We took the kids over to Tree of Life for a service, and we prayed outside. That was the first time it really hit me. It felt, standing there praying and singing, it was helpful for me and for a lot of the students. We’re a small school, and we’re close with all the kids. I was talking with some [mental health] professionals right after the attack, and they said, ‘The first thing you do on Monday is you gauge the climate with the students.’ I knew we didn’t need to wait until Monday because by Sunday everyone was texting. 

Song and prayer. In the Torah, people sing in moments of pure emotion. And that raw emotion is what prayer is modeled after. It’s cathartic. It’s healing. It gives you a chance to think and reflect.
 

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For me, it’s about hope. We can’t get stuck. We have to keep moving forward. We have to recognize the sadness that happens, we have to recognize the evil that happens. But we can’t allow the sadness, and especially the evil, to stop us from having hope. That’s exactly what evil, in particular, is: It’s out to destroy hope.

I think if we recognize the fact that God has given us something to look forward to, God has given us a reason to live, God has given us the reality of His presence in our lives, that we’ve got that to look forward to, and nothing, nothing, not the worst evil, can take that away from us.

But what that means also is we have to be there to help each other, to be there for each other to see that hope, because sometimes it’s hard to see.

We’re there to support each other, to help each other, even when we don’t have words. The reality is that we are in solidarity with other folks just to see above and beyond, to keep moving forward. To recognize the struggles, the evil that has occurred, but also to say: we will not be stuck because of that. We will work to overcome things but also look to something that is far, far better. Otherwise, we’re lost.
 

“In a time like this, you don’t have words, you have faith.”

From a Christian perspective, obviously, you look at Jesus. On the night before he died, he says, “Father, would that this cup might pass away, but not my will but yours be done. I know there’s something bigger than the evil I’m about to face. I know you’re with us.” When he’s dying on the cross, what does he say? “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” We have hope, and that’s what gets us through this thing.

For people who struggle with faith or lost it somewhere, this seems to be the most ludicrous thing in the world: How can you deal with something like this? But you look at all the folks who came to the vigils in Pittsburgh or anywhere else, who basically said, ‘We’re here,’ as a sign of strength, a sign of support, because there’s something more. And that something more is not just strength in numbers, there’s something deeper in our hearts. And however you wish to express that, ultimately it’s God. When you have that relationship with the Lord as the foundation of your life, you can give folks a reason to keep moving forward and not allow ourselves to be stuck in the tragedies of the past. 

In a time like this, you don’t have words, you have faith. You want to do everything, but there’s not a lot you can do except support. You can’t go in with blind ambition or expect you’re going to save the world single-handedly, but you do something by supporting, by participating, by saying, ‘We’re in this together.’ Regardless of what differences you might have, we’re all in this together. And when you recognize the fact we’re in this together you realize — I keep going back to this — that there’s hope. That we can overcome.
 

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