PERSEPECTIVE | How the Jewish community hopes to heal


Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor

Roger Day and Abby Resnick of Squirrel Hill join in singing a Hebrew song at the vigil mourning the lives lost in the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting Saturday morning. Day and Resnick are Jewish but they are not currently affiliated with a synagogue.

By Brian Gentry, Contributing Editor

Daylight disappeared on a cold, rainy Saturday in Pittsburgh as thousands gathered outside Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill, only hours after a man took 11 innocent lives.

The Jewish community turned out in large numbers. Many wore yarmulkes and sang traditional prayers that called for healing and unity. Some attendees lit their havdalah candles. These candles usually mark the end of Shabbat, but this Saturday, they symbolized the end of a tragic day for Jewish Pittsburgh and the hopeful beginning of a new one.

As Sunday arrived, the Jewish community mobilized further, holding another vigil in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. The building quickly filled and masses gathered outside for two hours, despite the rain.

The Jewish community has been strong in the face of such a horrific tragedy, a testament to its resilience and virtue. As community members mourn the loss of 11 of their family and friends, they look to heal their wounds.

This hope for healing reveals a dedication to their faith. Rather than shut the doors of their synagogues, closing off their community to the outside world, they’re keeping them wide open to promote acceptance and love.

DaVid Powell, a board member at a synagogue in Detroit, noted his congregation’s commitment to keeping the community open and free in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting.

“We have to go ahead and live our lives,” Powell told the Detroit Free Press.

This isn’t the first time a religious group has responded with the same type of love. When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, black churches in the area continued to be loving and open.

For example, when a white man walked into Campbell Chapel, a black church in Bluffton, South Carolina, on a Wednesday just a few weeks later, the church attendees were understandably anxious. Yet the chapel’s pastor, Reverend Jon Black, let him attend the Bible study, despite the general unease. In nearly every African Methodist Episcopal service, the church expresses its litany, “The doors of the Church are open.”

“So how do you do that on Sunday morning and close them on Wednesday night?” Black said.

Jewish synagogues will remain as open as they can while keeping the safety of congregants in mind. Rabbi Shmuel Rothstein, the program director of the Chabad House at Pitt, believes that healing will come through assurance that his community will be safe. He’s in favor of increased security at places of worship, something synagogues across the country have already implemented.

This is something Dan Marcus, the executive director of Hillel Jewish University Center, agrees with. Even prior to the tragedy, the JUC required visitors to buzz in and sign in at the front desk — this didn’t preclude anyone from visiting, but just served as an additional precaution.

“Safety and security of our students is always our priority and of paramount importance,” he said.

Though this move is contentious even within the Jewish community, it would provide some Jewish people additional peace of mind during religious services. In Pittsburgh, police officers are already present at synagogues during the High Holidays, and a similar presence at congregations would ease these fears.

But most importantly, the Jewish community can heal through demonstrations of support and care by “bringing light” to the world, as Marcus calls it. This concept of bringing spiritual light derives from Kabbalah, a Jewish tradition, and only requires the spreading of love.

“Students are saying, ‘What action can I do?’” he said.

Rothstein is offering opportunities for students to get involved. He believes that this action doesn’t have to be something political or something world-changing — it just has to be something that brings light to the world. That’s why, in response to the violence, he started the 10,000 Lights program at the Chabad House, where he’ll keep track of 10,000 good deeds done by its members.

“Darkness is only the absence of something positive,” Rothstein said.

And any action — something as small as a friendly hello — can help illuminate this darkness.

Marcus has demonstrated his love by providing a place for Jewish people to feel safe. Over the weekend, the JUC became a safe place where dozens of students grieved. At next Friday evening’s Shabbat, he had already planned to have therapy pets — now, he knows they’re necessary.

This is something that Sophie Tannenbaum, a senior social work student at Pitt, is working on as well. She’s organizing Hillel Makes a Difference, an event taking place this Sunday, where students involved will perform direct acts of community service. On her list are the construction of an urban garden, a visit to a senior living facility by Jewish Greek life and the making of blankets for chemo patients at The Children’s Hospital.

This love isn’t limited to the Jewish community. Non-Jewish people can demonstrate their love, support and care for the community through the same types of actions. Marcus called the outpouring of love “a blessing.”

Other communities in Pittsburgh have demonstrated their love for the Jewish community. Some organizations within the Muslim-American community in Pittsburgh started an online fundraiser that has raised more than $150,000 for the Tree of Life Synagogue so far. And at all of the vigils, including an interfaith one at Sixth Presbyterian Church, non-Jewish people turned out in large numbers.

This demonstration of support for the Jewish community is vital to keep Jewish expression open. Fortunately, Rothstein doesn’t think people’s practices of Judaism will be in any way inhibited by this tragedy. On the contrary, he hopes and believes that he’ll see more outward expressions of Judaism.

The Jewish community is still grieving. But its optimism will keep it thriving.

“Eleven lights were snuffed out,” Rothstein said.

And it’s up to all of us to bring more light back.