PITTSBURGH — I came here not as a journalist, but as a Jew.
When you’re Jewish, even if you aren’t strictly observant, bits and pieces of Jewish teaching and tradition are infused within you and present themselves to you at different points in your life. Ever since learning about the tragic events at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill last Saturday, one line has stuck with me from the Haggadah, the book we read during Passover as we commemorate the exodus of our ancestors from captivity: “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.”
As with all religious texts, there are several meanings to this, but thinking about it in the wake of Saturday’s tragedy, it spoke to me of the common thread that connects today’s Jews to the experiences of those who came before us, to all of those currently living, and to all of those who will come after. Somehow, it helps explain why the attack has felt so personal to me, the source of a deep sadness, as if something happened to members of my own family.
Every Jew has known for a long time that something like this was bound to happen — hence the security presence at many synagogues, especially during major holidays. It was just by random chance that an evil man ended up storming into a synagogue in Pittsburgh — it could have just as easily happened in New York, or Washington, or Philadelphia, or Baltimore, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or any other city with a vibrant Jewish community.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., declared in the wake of the attack, “It was not just an attack upon their synagogue. It was an attack upon all of our synagogues.”
On Tuesday, I joined along as Herzfeld led a group of about 50 people on a nine-hour round-trip bus excursion to show support for the Pittsburgh Jewish community. We attended a funeral for two of victims, prayed outside the Tree of Life synagogue, and heard an account of the attack from a police commander who told us of how officers encountered a sea of bullets as they thwarted the gunman before he could inflict more carnage.
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Temple Rodef Shalom, a large synagogue, was packed as mourners remembered Cecil and David Rosenthal, two brothers, aged 59 and 54 respectively, who were killed during the attacks. The main floor was standing room only and four people deep — then people filled up all the seats in the balcony, with still more standing along the back wall.
Family, friends, and fellow congregants recalled them as “beautiful souls” and as “gentle giants.” Though they struggled with intellectual disabilities, they were always joyful and didn’t have a hateful bone in their bodies. Cecil, the more outwardly social one, was described as the “honorary president” or “mayor” of the synagogue. Cecil would greet everybody who came into the synagogue and ask them about their lives and their families. David, though more reserved, was fond of telling jokes and keeping things clean — always making sure to line up prayer books and shawls in an orderly fashion. If Cecil was the “mayor” of the synagogue, David was the “usher.”
They were shining lights of the synagogue, which they both thought of as their home — and they never missed a Shabbat. They loved a big party, their sister, Diane Hirt, said — and by all accounts they would have gotten a kick out of the massive turnout and attention paid to their funeral.
After the funeral, we walked about a mile and a half through the quiet residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill to the Tree of Life synagogue. What three days earlier was the sight of the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history had turned into something much different.
With the synagogue still surrounded by police tape, as the FBI investigators complete their examination of the crime scene, the sidewalk was filled with flowers, memorial candles, and 11 Star of David stands with the names of the victims. On the street outside, a crowd gathered, with representatives from multiple denominations of different religious faiths and Jewish congregations from several states from various levels of observance. Hours before President Trump arrived at the scene and drew protests, there was little evidence of the rancor and political division or of the toxic discourse that one would think is the norm if only following the news on social media. People stood with their arms wrapped around each other, belting out Hebrew prayers as they contemplated the unspeakable evil that took place there.
New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, trying to make sense of how somebody could have gunned down people as they faced the Torah absorbed in prayer, said, “The rabbis say that hate defies the rule. When a person is possessed by hate, the person can do that which is not only inhuman, but subhuman.”
However, he said, recalling the outpouring of compassion he had witnessed on visits to the site over the past two days, “It’s not only hate that defies the rule. Love defies the rule.”
He continued, “The reason that we are here today … is because there are more lovers that defy the rule. The love is deeper. The love is higher.”
As news of the attacks reverberated throughout the Jewish world, there has been an outpouring of grief and sympathy. Services memorializing the event have been overflowing throughout the nation and it has attracted worldwide attention. On Tuesday, we also met with a team that had been dispatched from Israel, from an organization called United Hatzalah. They have a unit that specializes specifically with helping people through the emotional trauma that comes after they or their loved ones were victims of terrorist attacks, something with which Israelis unfortunately have too much experience. They flew in to help train local counselors in how to console victims of such trauma.
Pittsburgh Police Commander Daniel Hermann, who helped oversee first responders, explained how when the first two police officers arrived at the scene of the Tree of Life attack, the shooter was finished there and the escalating police response was able to stop him from getting away. “If he would have gotten out, he would have went somewhere else,” Hermann said. One possible target could have been the nearby Jewish Community Center, at a time when it would have been packed with kids swimming in the pool and people in the gym.
Looking back at Jewish history, it’s easy to focus on the persecution and suffering. But the story of the Jews is not ultimately one of oppression; it’s one of survival. It’s about a proud people who fought, and scrapped, and struggled, and went on. Jews preserved the faith through thousands of years, through the rule of Romans and Babylonians, the Inquisition, pogroms, and the gulags of Soviet Russia.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel chronicled the great lengths that prisoners went through to conduct the daily tefillin prayers in Auschwitz — even if it meant trading away their sustenance and risking death. “A dozen prisoners thereby sacrificed their sleep, and sometimes their rations of bread or coffee, to perform the mitzvah, the commandment to wear the tefillin,” Wiesel wrote. “Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp. I said my prayers every day. On Saturday I hummed Shabbat songs at work, in part no doubt, to please my father, to show him I was determined to remain a Jew even in the accursed kingdom.”
Just think of it. If anybody had valid reasons to drift away from such observances, to question the ways of God or even God’s very existence, it was prisoners in a Nazi death camp. Yet some of them risked their lives to practice their faith and preserve traditions so that they could endure for future generations.
With the establishment of Israel, Jews took defense into their own hands. Surrounded by enemies and condemned by most of the world, they not only turned the desert green, but made it into a modern, high-tech economy.
The Pittsburgh shooter wrote about the need to end the “kike infestation.” He opened fire shouting, “All Jews must die.”
But, as with others who wanted to eliminate the Jews throughout history, the shooter did not understand us. He didn’t realize that his actions would only deepen our connection to Judaism and remind us of the strong bonds that connect us to each other. And so, the shooter will live out his days in a cell and join the long list of evil men who fantasized about destroying us — and failed.