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.

 

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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I think one of the most beautiful things about the response to all this has been unity and solidarity. And I think that people can’t understand how important that is. And that’s what can’t be wasted — the sacrifice of these individuals.

It doesn’t mean we’re unified as a city, but it means we can take some steps toward it. Unfortunately it took a tragedy for us to be given the opportunity, but we can really take advantage of it and build more bridges and stronger bridges and move toward a more equitable Pittsburgh. If we don’t do that, we’ve really failed the people, their memory. Keep in mind we can mourn, but before the last tear drops, we have to have a plan of building that solidarity.

A lot of people have tragedies occur in the world or their own lives, and they question the existence of God, or they think if God exists He’s a cruel one. I always really remember that these horrible things happen no matter what. They just exist, and they’re horrible and terrible, and to take away all meaning from it and drag that from a person is really cruel in and of itself. If you do not look for the meaning or why something happened, that’s just senseless tragedy. Nothing comes from it. It’s just random. I cannot understand how people handle that. The reality is tragedies happen all the time, whether or not God exists, and I believe God exists out of necessity — that the loss of human life and tragedy have some meaning to it as opposed to no meaning. 
 

“Nothing makes me happier than seeing the darkness in this tragedy being completely blotted out by the beacons of light … ”

There are lots of reasons that disaster and tragedy happen, from teaching lessons to helping communities. For example, what if the sacrifice these individuals made was God’s way of bringing us all together and making the city more unified in solidarity and a model for the rest of the country and the world? I think a lot of people didn’t think the headlines would be about that moving forward. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the darkness in this tragedy being completely blotted out by the beacons of light of people bonding, and the stories of the victims are beautiful, and that’s what I want to hear. It’s not filling the world with more negative and hateful news; it’s bringing hope to the people of the world.

The concept of hope in a dark time is what we keep coming back to. You could take this and take it into a dark place: “Hey, none of us are safe anywhere. We’re not safe in our sanctuary, where can we be safe? The minorities are not welcome, the marginalized communities will stay that way, and we are as divided as ever.” But that is not the common reaction. 

We’re going to make it through this together; we’re stronger together — that’s a much more powerful narrative. That’s a much more godly narrative, in my opinion. And it’s really heartening to see Pittsburgh come together in a very authentic way and a very natural way. It’s not just platitudes from politicians — this is the way people on the ground are actually reacting.

It’s a moment, and in order to keep this momentum going in loving memory of all these people who passed, it’s going to take a lot of work and we have meetings planned. We have political leaders and lay leaders and educators just continue to react to this. Everybody needs to be in a room to see how to maintain and build upon this work. It’s needed in order for us to actually honor the memory of all of these victims.
 

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The synagogue has been a safe space and now it has been violated. In particular, it’s a safe space where we Jews can go in a society that doesn’t always have a lot of room for Judaism to flourish. It’s not to say that Jews are “just tolerated,” but Judaism doesn’t permeate American culture except as part of TV shows, bagels and stuff like that.

Jews, for the most part, pass as white, but there are ways in which we’re outside of mainstream American culture. And the synagogue is the place where we’re not outsiders. And that’s a hard thing to wrap our heads around, that in a society where we get integrated, to some extent there’s this barrier. 

This act of violence against Jews in Jewish space requires Jews, regardless of how they engage with Judaism, to think about what it means to identify as Jewish and whether they want Judaism to fade into their identity or come out more strongly. There were people who showed up to services on the following Friday night who hadn’t been to services in decades. But an attack on Jews — and not just on Jews but Jews in a synagogue as they were preparing to pray or praying — made them want to identify more strongly. 

It’s a question that we’ve all been asking, how to make the synagogue feel safe. I don’t have specific answers. In Europe, it’s standard practice to have armed guards outside a Jewish institution. And people are just used to that. I don’t know what the internal reaction is among European Jews, but at this point, it’s just the way it is. Kids are growing up with an expectation that a guard will be outside. And it’s mostly preventative, but you want to make sure it’s safe. For better or worse, things are different in the United States; anti-Semitism has not been as big a deal. Yet, at most major [Jewish] institutions, you can’t just walk into a building without being buzzed in or showing identification. But there’s been the thought that on Shabbat, you don’t need that. I think that’s where there might be a significant change. 

Part of moving forward is making reasonable changes. A more significant part of it is not living life in fear. Terrorism, hate crimes, they’re all meant to disrupt life and create anxiety and fear where they haven’t existed before. It’s an act of defiance to say, “Actually, you don’t get to change my life so drastically. You don’t get to change my community so drastically. We’re going to keep living.”
 

“Part of moving forward is making reasonable changes. A more significant part of it is not living life in fear.”

Jewish ritual is helpful in this regard. This Shabbat (the Friday following the massacre) was a big deal because it was about coming together and saying that our sanctuaries will continue to be sanctuaries, safe havens. And look at all these people who came out to affirm that the sanctuary of a synagogue should be a safe place. Now, that our dead have been buried, we’re entering shiva, the first week of actual mourning — not just trying to put one foot in front of the other, but reflecting on the significant trauma of what just happened. Next Shabbat will be a conclusion to that intense grief. Thirty days from now, we’ll have to have something to mark the fact that it’s been a month. That period of shloshim (30 days of mourning) will start us moving from the intense grief of shiva to less intense grief of the rest of life. In a year, there will be something to mark the yahrzeit, which will bring up the grief and trauma again, but also give us perspective about how we as a community and we as individuals have grown from the trauma. And we’ll do something annually for many years because we can’t forget this. 

Music also helps because it hits a different part of us. You can’t intellectualize it as much as you can with words, especially songs that are connected to memory. There’s this idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s some sort of spirit that infuses a group of people doing something together. Music, especially singing together, pulls out the spirit within us and connects our spirits with those around us. 

There’s one more piece that is really important. The attack was not just anti-Semitic but also anti-immigrant. This person — and I refuse to use his name because I do not want him to gain fame from his horrific actions — had a well-documented social media history of spewing hatred against immigrants and refugees in general and against HIAS in particular. As a community, we will have to find ways to heal from the reality that this person attacked a synagogue on Shabbat, but as a nation, we will have to reckon with our closed-mindedness and fear regarding people who look different, speak different languages and come from different places.
 

 

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What happened in Squirrel Hill is only the result of a long process. What we would like to pay attention to is not the result but rather the process that brings a person to such a state. What are the causes and conditions that make somebody’s mind so violent and aggressive? What ideas feed a person’s fear and, consequently, anger?

We consider anger and violent behavior a kind of cover-up for our own internal struggle; when we have fear or any other kind of disappointment, if you do not know the tools to handle it, you will use your anger as a cover-up. Anger is an expression of weakness; aggressive people may feel powerful on the outside, but the inside is very weak.

We have a responsibility as religious teachers, and anyone who has some mastery of human emotions, to teach these tools. Ultimately, it’s an individual task; societally, however, organizations — particularly religious organizations — have a responsibility to teach people tools and techniques to deal with their emotions and deal with the views that we construct. We should offer help to people who are misguided, people who have a confused mind. People who are suffering from their own fear. All of us are misguided on some scale; it is easily possible for our mind to go to extremes if we don’t take care of it. We have a great responsibility to take care of ourselves and help our neighbors.

There’s beauty in Pittsburgh; I came to Pittsburgh from Sri Lanka 10 years ago, and what kept me here was this openness. This interconnectedness among different communities; that is the beauty of Pittsburgh. We have such a strong sense of welcoming and openness and embracing. I have no problem going anywhere in my robes; I have never experienced (or encountered) any negativity in my 10 years here. That’s what kept me here.
 

“What we have in Pittsburgh is solidarity, openness, this amazing attitude; we should not lose our sight of that.”

Incidents like these can bring negative feelings. At the same time, we should also pay attention to how much support and coming together of communities has happened afterward. There was an outpouring of help; everyone is coming together. What we have in Pittsburgh is solidarity, openness, this amazing attitude; we should not lose our sight of that. This horrible incident happened. But we also have seen so many good things. We should not lose our hope.

One way that we can help someone to mourn and go through the pain is to be for that person; let that person know that we are behind you, we are ready to share your burden. When people who have suffered know that other people understand what they are going through and are ready to give a shoulder, give an ear, it’s much easier to go through the mourning process. I think, as a community — as a very friendly, connected community in Pittsburgh — we should keep our arms open and eyes open. If you can, physically be there; at synagogue meetings, if they allow, go and sit with them, show them. The best way to help them to mourn and go through the grieving process — because it takes time — is to be available to them. Listen to them. Be with them.
 

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Here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, we send our deepest sympathy to our neighbors at the Tree of Life synagogue and the entire Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We mourn with the families of those who died in this horrific and hateful incident, and we hope for a speedy recovery for all who have sustained injuries, including the officers serving in the Pittsburgh police force.

Two starkly contrasting visions struggle against one another nowadays in the United States. In one of these visions, straight, white male supremacy dominates the center, while other people — women, people of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christian religious groups, people with disabilities, and so on — are regarded as less important and even as threats to the entrenched tradition of straight, white male power. This is the vision that insisted on putting yet another straight, white man on the Supreme Court, despite serious questions about his fitness for the position. This is the vision that created the disturbances in Charlottesville in August 2017. And in a more extreme form, this is the vision that led to the deaths of 11 members of the Tree of Life synagogue here in Pittsburgh.
 

“Two starkly contrasting visions struggle against one another nowadays in the United States.”

The other vision promotes a more inclusive society, with many different kinds of people in positions of influence and authority, with many different kinds of people enjoying respect and admiration and opportunity, and with many different kinds of people contributing their narratives and their cultural truths to the fabric of our society. This is an inclusive vision, where differences in personal characteristics such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and family background do not lead to open hostility, or attempts by one group to dominate other groups, or judgments about who is acceptable and who is not. Instead, in response to personal differences, this inclusive vision invites mutual appreciation and a willingness to listen and learn.

Which of these two visions will our country choose — the vision that perpetuates straight, white male supremacy, or the vision that points toward a more egalitarian and inclusive society? The Unitarian Universalist faith tradition that I serve envisions a world that truly recognizes all humanity as one united community where all are accepted and loved for who they are, and none are subject to hate, bigotry, oppression, injustice or exclusion.
 

 

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In some ways, this started as a typical Saturday for me, and in some ways not. Believe it or not, throughout the year, we’ve had a number of programs at our church on facing systematic racism. We were scheduled to have our fifth anti-racism session, on white privilege, that evening. I was at church to prepare for that as well as to write a sermon I was going to deliver, not at my church, but at Judah Fellowship Christian Church.

The Judah Fellowship congregation is made up of LGBTQ individuals who typically have been ostracized by organized religion. Saturday’s events changed the sermon I had been preparing. Instead, I preached from the Fourth Chapter of Genesis about Cain killing Abel. 

The very first murder was a brother who killed a brother. As human beings (I won’t even say as people of God, but as human beings), crimes are often committed against those who are closest to us. Crime is very often one of proximity and familiarity. But any time we take the life of an individual, we have taken the life of a brother, or a sister or a sibling — because we are all a part of the human race. 

The person who went into the synagogue killed people he saw as “The Other.” In actuality, he was killing his siblings in the sight of God. 

The Other is typically anyone who is denigrated or looked upon as lesser, or someone who we are unfamiliar with. I don’t like to use that terminology. I believe we’re all a part of the human race, and so we’re all in this together. I prefer to say “Another.” 
 

“There are no “Others” in this country or, really, in the world.”

I ended the sermon talking about how we are a people who will never allow darkness to put out the light or have fear overcome our hope. 

We are also required, not only to pray for the people whose lives were taken and for their family and friends and our city, but also to faithfully pray for the person who perpetuated this crime upon all of us. Because God tells us to pray even for our enemies. Even though that’s difficult, that’s what is required of us as people of God. 

My hope for the future is that somehow, in God’s time, we will realize that we are all in this together. There are no “Others” in this country or, really, in the world. We’re all created in the image of God. 

I have hope that we will have leadership in the presidency and across the country that will espouse that love for your brother, your sister, your sibling, no matter who they might be, their country of origin, their ethnicity, their gender or their sexual orientation.

As are the majority of our city residents, I am heartbroken and angry. Heartbroken that our Abrahamic brothers and sisters were violated and gunned down in their place of worship, a sacred place and sanctuary, and angry about the current state of our country and the total disregard, devaluation and disposability of people considered by some as “The Other.” 

I am still processing and praying about where we go from here. However, as a person of faith, I realize that the only place we can go is to God in prayer. I am praying God will heal the hurt and devastation suffered by the Tree of Life families and community. I am praying that God will heal the residents of the City of Pittsburgh, the nation, Israel and the world. I am praying for God to heal the souls of those who have reduced the lives of those they consider “The Other” as being valueless, disposable and to be feared. 

And I have faith that darkness will never overcome light, that hate will never overcome love, and that divisive and hateful rhetoric will never overcome the truth that we are all created in the image of and loved by God.
 

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Hate crimes are common phenomena, with the frequency of such crimes increasing significantly in the past few years. One should not be complacent about this matter; one must take needed precautions to avoid exposure to such acts.

After Saturday’s incident, we have all faced the reality that hate crimes can impact us. We are determined to show support to our fellow citizens and community — to create a cooperative spirit without worrying about the differences we may have, but instead focus on the similarities we all have as human beings.
 

“These types of incidents also unite those of different backgrounds and religious faiths to work together for the greater good of society.”

First, one has to realize that we are living in a society where values have changed and differences among us are magnified. With this in mind, one has to curtail the freedom we used to enjoy in the past, without any second thought. A human-made disaster could strike at any place without any [clear] cause. [We must] not take anything for granted and prepare to face this new reality while taking all the precautionary measures that we can control.  

These types of incidents also unite those of different backgrounds and religious faiths to work together for the greater good of society. During these times, one has to be empathetic to others and extend our arms to bridge any gaps in society and the community. Take part in activities organized by other communities and show solidarity to each other, irrespective of religion, race and sexual orientation. Open, heart-to-heart discussions will help heal the wounds caused in communities by the cruel acts of a few individuals.
 

 

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This has been a great country because it is a country of immigrants, with people coming from different cultures. People have to be open minded and be respectful of each other — not focusing on cultural differences.

We need to focus on our common goal in our cultures: to benefit our society and our country. 

Unfortunately, the current political climate is causing division in people. The media, especially, is fueling the division, leading to the radicalization of people with deranged and weak minds. The media can tone down the criticism and focus on good news, showing good deeds by people for people.
 

“Unfortunately, the current political climate is causing division in people.”

The perpetrator of the recent incident was mentally unstable; it would have been a different outcome if he had received professional help. He is still alive; he may face the death penalty. Instead, if we spare him from that punishment, get him medical and mental help, [we can have] him communicate to the people — admit his evil actions and show his remorse. If, over a period of time, the media can show he can be transformed, there is a chance to prevent others from being radicalized. People have to see positive thoughts and actions in the news. 

Mutual respect and appreciation will go a long way.
 

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Dor Hadash is over 50 years old. We’re a lay-led, do-it-yourself congregation, and we’re a strong congregation. It’s been a horrible process, and all three congregations suffered together through the tragedy of the shooting. We do think it’s important to make it clear that while we respect Rabbi Myers (Rabbi Hazzan of Tree of Life congregation), he didn’t speak for the whole community when he was speaking to the national media.

Dor Hadash has a strong social action component at its core. We are a member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS); as a congregation, we are very concerned with the refugee situation and helping refugees as much as we can. HIAS was established in 1881. This is not a radical organization. This is an organization that has helped settle Jewish refugees, Vietnamese refugees and others for well over 100 years now. So it feels horrific, it feels scary, to be a target for something that you believe in. 

I don’t want to make generalizations about Jews, but it seems when the morality of a culture is in question, Jews are often part of the target. I can’t say I know exactly how this works, but when there has been unrest in countries, Jews are often targeted. I think we’ve underestimated that [in the United States] because we couldn’t believe it would happen here. 
 

“It’s important for people in power to understand that the language they use is extremely potent.”

It’s not just us. On the same weekend as the shooting in Pittsburgh, there were two black people, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones, killed in Kentucky. That shooter was trying to get into a church but couldn’t. The following week, two people were killed in a yoga studio. The problems of guns, and the accessibility of hate through the internet, is enormous. Clearly, the leadership of the country has been promoting hateful language, and that’s a problem. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise, and there have been shootings at other organizations, as well as desecration of cemeteries. This shooter believed Jews were responsible for bringing in refugees. In this context, refugees are not seen as people who are suffering but as carrying diseases or as dangerous criminals. 

The response to this has been unbelievable. So many communities have stepped up to help us. The money raised by the Muslim community, the food cooked, the letters sent to us is overwhelming. There are so many good people in the world. [In the wake of the massacre,] people are talking to each other and finding out how connected they are. It’s been so interesting how people we never thought knew each other are connected. It heightens the sense that we’re not so isolated as we think. The mayor really stepped up. Pittsburgh is culturally rich, but it’s a small city of neighborhoods. 

The founder of the Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, talked about Judaism as a civilization, not a religion. Not identifying with religion is important for some people — there are members at Dor Hadash who are agnostic and there are some who are very observant — and I can understand that. Reconstructionist Judaism is steeped in history; it’s not watered down. We are egalitarian Jews. We had the first Bat Mitzvahs as far back as the 1920s. We do not consider ourselves the “chosen people.” So we take a lot of the historical material and think about it in the context of the ethics of the world today. 

And so in terms of how we go forward, we’re more committed than ever as an organization to what we stand for. I think you have to keep going. Language creates reality. It’s important for people in power to understand that the language they use is extremely potent. So vote for people who speak about the positive aspects of human beings rather than those who are separating groups and creating fear and hate.

I think that people who have suffered in any way grow themselves to recognize the suffering of others. What happened to us is so horrible, but if we didn’t name other people killed that weekend or if we didn’t talk about wars around the world where people are traumatized every day, if we only have self-involvement, then you don’t feel. You can’t just care about yourself. These issues are central to Dor Hadash, and that was why I joined this congregation. We are all responsible.

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