When They Come For The Jews - Pittsburgh Reflections

This week has been surreal in a way I never could have imagined. In my last blog post, I shared that I was traveling on a family heritage trip to Germany, to commemorate the events that impacted my family, as well as so many others, during the Holocaust. I was ready for the intellectual engagement with history. I was even ready for the emotional aspect of grappling with the lasting impact of the collective trauma of the Shoah on my family.

I was not ready to be standing in front of the synagogue where my great-grandfather once prayed when I received the news that a Jewish community that I called home for years was massacred in their own house of worship.

For those who are not aware, I’m an alumna of the University of Pittsburgh. I have two aunts who live in Squirrel Hill, less than three blocks away from Tree of Life, and I consider Pittsburgh to be a home base. I know the streets of Squirrel Hill. I regularly wear Pittsburgh attire, and get inordinately excited whenever I encounter someone with ties to what truly is my favorite city. I love the unpretentiousness of the community, the spirit of the city, and the way that this unique place thrives more and more each year.

My aunts and I were together when we received the news. At first, quite frankly it didn’t seep in. We didn’t yet know the cold shock that comes when the latest mass-shooting is literally in your backyard. When waiting for the names to be released means praying that none of them are familiar, and then feeling like a horrible person because even if they aren’t to you, countless lives have been devastated by the direct loss of these human beings. And again, there’s nothing quite like grappling with that as a Jewish educator on the train tracks in the Polish town where your family was deported to in 1938. It’s too morbid for words, to say the least. And it drove things home in a way that I never anticipated.

Like many of us who work in the Jewish community, I know the drill when it comes to anti-Semitism and security. My building has a guard on the premises constantly, for which I’m grateful but generally don’t think about, other than when I great them each morning and evening. My synagogue has had security for as long as I can remember. I’ve posted platitudes on Facebook when swastikas appeared on local communal institutions, and have spent countless hours teaching about anti-Semitism from the left and the right, and how to deal with it. I’m morbidly drawn to the Holocaust, and have plenty of feelings about Holocaust education, and the delicate path that we as educators need to take when creating links between previous historical horrors and modern anti-Semitism.

All of that went out the window this week. I found myself angry, sad, and unmoored by not being able to be with my community of Pitt friends during our time of need. At the same time, I was so grateful to be with my big extended family, and to be able to place past and present events into context with one another in a way I never could have otherwise. I’ll be sharing more reflections over the coming days/weeks, but for now, here are my plans as an educator in the wake of this tragedy:

  1. Owning my anger - I believe in being authentic [in a developmentally appropriate way] with my learners. When I reunite with my students this week, I want them to know that I’m angry, and that it’s ok to be. Or to be sad. Or scared. Or numb. Or whatever else they are - mourning is deeply personal, and that’s what our community is doing right now.

  2. Focusing on peoplehood - Every mass shooting is a tragedy. Each one should be the last, and should motivate and inspire others to work to end this epidemic. We should always take the time to remember the names, to learn the stories, and to mourn the dead. But at the same time - this one is ours. I feel inextricably linked to Jews around the world, and to this community in particular, and I want to convey that to my learners. We’re all connected and bonded, and what happens in one community reverberates through us all.

  3. Showing up - The absolute worst thing I could think of happening (now that the worst has already happened for Tree of Life) would be for a single person to now hesitate before walking through the doors of a synagogue. Or a JCC. Or a kosher butcher, or a Hillel, or any other proudly and uniquely Jewish space. I’m usually a pretty delinquent synagogue goer. I have all the excuses - I do Jewish all week and need some separation, I’m tired after hosting Shabbat dinner, I want to snuggle my dog, whatever. But you can bet I’ll be at a service this weekend, early. And I hope you will be too.

  4. Honoring the dead by honoring the living - I personally believe that Jews do death really well. Our rituals are not only comforting; they also make psychological sense. And one of the lessons that my father instilled in me over the years is that our main obligation is to the living - to comfort those left behind, to do good, and to act in a way that honors them moving forward.

How are you handling the tragedies of this week? Share your tips in the comments!

Adass Jisroel