After the Pittsburgh Tragedy

Like any other week

tree-of-life-synagogue-pittsburgh

The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo: Courtesy of the Tree of Life Synagogue Facebook page.

November 3, 2018. The first Saturday after the Pittsburgh massacre, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, in which 11 Jews were slaughtered doing just what our family does every Shabbat morning—attend synagogue.

Over breakfast, we reminded our three boys—ages 9, 12, and 15—what had happened, how there was a shooting in a synagogue, last Shabbat morning. Eleven died, and six police officers were among the injured. There would likely be a larger crowd than usual at shul, and there’d probably be a police officer too.

We walk to our synagogue on Shabbat, rain or shine, hot or cold. The rain was coming down so hard we doubled-up, with ponchos over our raincoats. As we approached the synagogue, I could just barely make out the shimmering silver badge on one of the two men standing in front of the synagogue. And I thought to myself—oh, we just might look suspicious with our oversized ponchos covering even our arms in the pouring rain. But after a few short moments, I stopped worrying. The man standing next to the police officer was our chief of maintenance; he recognized us, smiled, and waved. Then I took a hard look at Eduardo (not his real name), standing there smiling, unafraid. We approached the door and stopped to take our ponchos off outside under the awning. We smiled, said good morning, and thanked them both for being there, welcoming us, and watching out for us. We were holding back tears.

Services were packed. A large festive Bar Mitzvah was scheduled for the day, but the crowd was still larger than expected. Shortly after we arrived, the maintenance team got to work setting up yet another few rows of overflow seating.

There’s a group of kids in our synagogue who are there, like our own children, every week. They’ve known each other and the synagogue all their lives. When the sun is shining, they play outside after services; when it is cold or raining, they play board games inside. Shortly after lunch, the downpours stopped, and the sun came out. Without giving it another thought, the kids ran outside and played.

In the foyer of our synagogue, there are a few chairs by the door. If you sit there, you can say hello to everyone who walks in and goodbye to everyone who walks out. We—my wife, our three children, and I—are always among the very last to leave on Saturday mornings. Often my wife and I sit in those chairs when many are leaving, but while our kids are off playing.

You can see the courtyard from those chairs, and as the crowd thinned out, I made my way and sat in one of those chairs and stared, taking it all in.

The rabbi came and sat down with me. I thanked him for his beautiful words during services and pointed outside: Look, rabbi, the kids are doing what they always do, running around together outside. Like any other week. Only this particular Shabbat, the kids were showing us the way.
 


 
Jonathan Klawans is Professor of Religion at Boston University. He has written extensively on topics relating to ancient Judaism. His next book is Heresy, Forgery, Novelty: Condemning, Denying and Asserting Innovation in Ancient Judaism (forthcoming, Oxford Univ. Press).

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