Monday, October 29, 2018

The Pittsburgh massacre: a personal view

I made aliyah (emigration) to Israel from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had lived in Pittsburgh more than 45 years before moving to this holy land. 

For 39 of those years in Pittsburgh, I lived in just one neighborhood, Squirrel Hill. For the final 27 years before aliyah, I lived across the street from my brother, who had come to Squirrel Hill some 4 years before me.

My wife and I began our married life together in Squirrel Hill. We bought our first-and-only home in Squirrel Hill. We raised our family in Squirrel Hill. We worshiped, shopped and educated our children in Squirrel Hill. We got to feel we knew the streets of Squirrel Hill as well as we knew the back of our hand. 

 Squirrel Hill streets were peaceful. They were clean. They were beautiful.

I once received a Community 'Volunteer of the Year' award. When I went to the ceremony to be honored, I was stunned, twice: first, I was stunned to see more than 200 people in the audience; and second, I was stunned too see so many of my Squirrel Hill neighbors both in the audience and among those being honored.

For me and my wife, Squirrel Hill wasn't just a place to live. It was a special place, where many individuals made contributions to our communal well-being.

The Jerusalem Post has called Squirrel Hill an "idyllic Jewish neighborhood" (here). Newspapers often get things wrong when they write about far-away places, but not this time. The Post is right: Squirrel Hill is indeed a happy, peaceful place to live.

But now, there's a change. Now, Squirrel Hill has become famous for a reason few would wish upon anyone. Now, Squirrel Hill has become the place of the greatest anti-Jewish attack in US history (ibid).

Just before 10 am, Pittsburgh time, on Shabbat, October 27, 2018, a gunman walked into a Jewish house of worship
called, Tree of Life. He arrived during worship hours carrying an AR-15 assault rifle and 3 (perhaps 4) handguns. He called for death to the Jews. He shot  dead 11 worshipers. He wounded 6 others, including at least 2 police officers (possibly 4) who had rushed there after a '911' call for help (here). 

Suddenly, Squirrel Hill is no longer 'idyllic'. Instead, it's now an answer to a gruesome trivia question: where did the worst anti-Jew massacre in US history occur?

As this story unfolded during a Pittsburgh Shabbat morning, Shabbat in Israel had already ended. When I sat down after Shabbat in Israel to check the day's internet news, 'Pittsburgh' was everywhere. Within seconds, I was watching a 10 am (Pittsburgh time) video replay broadcast from outside that synagogue. 

I recognized the street, the foliage, the buildings, and even some of the people on camera being interviewed. This was a place I knew, intimately. It was just blocks from my house. 

I had taught at a nearby college, the entrance to which was right across the street from the 'Tree of Life'. One of my children went to that same college almost every weekday for four years. 

I knew that corner. I remember the colors and shapes of the rain-dampened trees on that wet street-corner. 

In the news, I saw the names of people I know--Michael Milch, Seymour Drescher, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, Laura Horowitz. One news still photo showed a former colleague of mine (and long-term Squirrel Hill resident) hugging another woman on  the street outside the 'Tree of Life'. I know these people. They're 'my' people--and their pain is my pain, even as I sit some 6,000 miles away.

The Associated Press interviewed a friend of mine, Richard Walters. I don't know if the AP printed his comments. But they're worth repeating.

This is perhaps a poor paraphrase, but he said 3 things:

-this horrific event should be labeled for what is--Jew hate;

-the best defense [against such attacks] is Strength;

-[the phrase], 'Never Again' is a Negative Affirmation. 'Stronger Together' is a positive affirmation...we must stand together United in Strength.

He's right. Jews must always understand that we can be strong only when we stand united by a common purpose--and act on that purpose in a focused way. 

We aren't always united today. Too often, we're not focused on a common purpose. We don't always act with one voice.

One pro-Israel blogger has put these deaths in Pittsburgh into a Jewish context (here, essay for 28 October 2018). Her connections are chilling.

She notes that we are now in the Jewish month called, Marcheshvan. This month is associated with 'mar'--that which is bitter.

She reminds us of the bitter historic events that have occurred this month:

-this is the month the Biblical Rachel died;

-it is the month the flood (during the story of Noah) began, a disaster that destroyed the world;

-it is the month when the pro-Israel advocate Rabbi Meir Kahane was assassinated in Brooklyn, NY;

-it is the same day on the Jewish calendar (18 Marcheshvan) when both Rabbi Meir Kahane and the Pittsburgh 11 were murdered.

-the synagogue where the murders took place was called, the 'Tree of Life'.

This blogger says there is meaning in these 'coincidences'. In the Jewish world, Saturday's date was the 18th of the (current Jewish) month. For many Jews, the number 18 is associated with the word, chai, which means life. The blogger believes that, to have so many Jews murdered in America on a day whose date means life, at a place called the Tree of Lifeis to suggest that death has come to Jewish life in America: Jewish life in America can no longer be sustained both because of massive assimilation (her idea) and an antisemitism which increases in number-of-incidents and violence (my idea). 

While Jewish life in America may well be past its prime, one thing is for sure. After the massacre, Jews in Pittsburgh came together. They united. They stood together

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