On Oct. 27, 2018, a lone gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He sprayed morning services with gunfire as various other gatherings of Jews in the same building hid in closets, basements, and classrooms. Eleven Jews were killed that day and a Jewish community was forever changed.
The shooter had plans to visit more synagogues after Tree of Life; the first responders from the local police and fire station entered the building and a suspect was arrested. he was arraigned on February 11, and pleaded not guilty.
On that day over three months ago, I wept as I read the news. As a Jewish person living all the way across the country, I felt this tragedy as if it were happening to my community. Indeed, it was happening to my community. The family of Jews in this world is a small family. In the United States, we make up the same percentage of the population as the Amish: 2 percent. Our story of survival for thousands of years despite persecution in every century is why we feel so connected to one another.
It is that connection that inspired me to reach out the next day to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to simply say, “How can I help?”
After many phone calls, many conference calls, many emails, and much anticipation, I traveled to Pittsburgh for five talks in three days: a personal record. Here’s what my weekend looked like.
You can’t fly direct to Pittsburgh and a red eye flight that would involve a stop in the middle of the night didn’t sound good, so I woke up at 3:45 a.m. to get on two flights, which got me into Pittsburgh at 3:30 p.m. There was no time to do anything but go straight to Hillel, the Jewish center of social, religious, and educational planning, which most every college and university has on their campus. I had 20 minutes to look like I didn’t wake up at 3:45 a.m. and I did my makeup as the director of Hillel, Dan Marcus, reviewed my itinerary with me.
Fifty student leaders from the surrounding colleges (Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, and Chatham University) had snacks with me, took selfies, and listened as I discussed my time as a student at Hillel 372 years ago. It was actually 24 years ago, but I think these kids must look at me like I’m 1,000 years old. As for me, it feels like yesterday when I go to any Hillel. Hillels are similar in their structure: There are rooms for hanging out, rooms for studying, rooms for shooting pool, and rooms for praying. Murals decorate the walls and what have to be the best and brightest of the Jewish leadership community work for Hillel. I discussed the anti-Israel sentiments that were beginning to surface on campuses all over the country 24 years ago; these students are going to school in an age where Jewish and Israeli professors are being blacklisted for believing in the existence of a Jewish state. They wanted help. I did my best to place anti-Zionism in a historical context and to share what we did at our Hillel.
I was asked to lead the lighting of Shabbat candles and I was struck by the common practices we Jews have even across the country; we share the global language of Hebrew. We share rituals of waving our hands thrice over the flames and covering our eyes as we acknowledge the creation of fire. We all took a deep breath together and then we prayed the Friday night service led by one of the students. A young woman next to me and I, raised a country’s distance apart, laughed as we discovered we had the same musical flourishes as prayer went on. We echoed the leader during “L’cha Dodi” and we harmonized together as if we were sisters. I suppose we kind of are.
The students and I walked to a larger synagogue 20 freezing minutes away through the streets of Pittsburgh. I felt unafraid and also very afraid at the same time. Was this open display of Jewishness dangerous? Conspicuous? I had security with me but honestly, would it really help if someone wanted to attack us? We talked and laughed and my face near fell off it was so cold. But we arrived at Rodef Shalom and ate a falafel dinner served for 250 of us. I spoke after dinner about my Jewish upbringing and I answered questions from students on everything from the end of The Big Bang Theory to breastfeeding and feminist politics to Yiddish, my native tongue and the language of Eastern European Jews. I sang the blessings after the meal, Birkas HaMazon, with the students the way I learned to in college; the way I taught my sons to.
The Home I Stayed In
In Orthodox communities, people frequently host guests from out of town, even if they don’t know them. It’s commonplace since hotels don’t always accommodate Shabbat restrictions and the idea of spending the holy day of rest alone more or less is antithetical to the spirit of Shabbat. A lovely and incredibly warm well-connected couple, David and Becca Knoll, with three young children, housed me in their guest room, fed me vegan snacks, answered all of my questions about Pittsburgh, and made me feel like one of them for the entire weekend. Their kids don’t watch me on television but they knew who I was by word of mouth, and I had an incredible weekend knowing I had a home base to go to in between all of my events.
I attended services at a modern Orthodox synagogue about 40 minutes from their home. Rabbi Wasserman is the Rabbi of Shaarei Torah and it was a beautiful synagogue with very friendly people. Snow flurries, which I prefer to just call “snow,” accompanied us on a very cold walk to synagogue, with my non-Jewish security agent trudging along. Synagogue is a complicated thing for me; I am often stared at like the goldfish I often feel like, but I love praying and I love singing and I love being surrounded by spiritual intensity. I spoke to about 100 people after services about things and took questions on—again—everything from modesty to the end of my pretending to be Amy Farrah Fowler. I had lunch with the Rabbi and his wife who cooked a super amazing vegan cholent and enough cabbage salad to last me my entire life. Every Shabbat, this couple hosts about 40 people. This Shabbat was not unusual; I was simply added to their guest list.
I took a Shabbat nap—my favorite part of Shabbat—and as Shabbat ended and three stars appeared in the sky, we recited the blessings of havdalah, which return us to the “mundane” secular week. My hosts and I headed to a really cool venue called “This Is Red,” where for an hour a Rabbi Schiff asked me questions that the young adults who attended the event had submitted. I took pictures with everyone and had a beautiful time meeting the young adults of the Jewish Federation.
Sunday morning I toured the Tree of Life synagogue which was originally founded during the Civil War. You can’t see the inside of the synagogue, which was defaced in the shooting; the lobby holds a memorial to the 11 killed as well as windows boarded up, shattered by bullet holes. The Vice President of the synagogue, Alan Hausman, who is also Logistics Manager, City of Pittsburgh Fire Chief of PA Strike Team 1 Urban Search and Rescue, and the Rabbi of the synagogue, Jeffrey Myers, talked about each of the 11 victims individually and I wept. They described the events of October 27, and I wept some more. Signs and posters and hand crafted Jewish stars of fabric and thread decorated the front entrance to the building; the entire neighborhood has Jewish stars painted on storefronts; even the local Starbucks has not removed the heart with a Jewish star they painted in their window three months ago.
The local fire station and police station are a few blocks from the synagogue; these were where the first responders came from. I visited their stations, donned a fire chief hat, and thanked them for their service and their sacrifice.
I then toured the local JCC where Jews and non-Jews use the facilities: a beautiful Reggio-inspired school cares for over 200 children of the community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Two gymnasiums and a state of the art gym are used by everyone. There are classes for teens and a 6 lane lap pool. Art is everywhere and I even got to talk to Melissa Hiller, the Foundation Specialist and American Jewish Museum Director at the JCC. The director, Brian Schreiber, showed me every nook and cranny of the building and it was beyond impressive. The cohesion of this community was evident and it is not a small feat to create a JCC so beloved and so comforting.
My final speaking engagement was for young adults affiliated with the JCC. We met at Casbah, one of the Big Burrito family of restaurants which donated space to the Jewish community after the shooting for a variety of events. The man who donated the use of his facilities was a Catholic Native American man raised by a single mother who benefitted as a child from the JCC’s programs and schooling. He is a business owner and wanted to give back to the Jewish community who cared for him so well when he was a small child. Wow.
I was introduced by Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt and I spoke about the significance of community in good times and in bad; how, much like a relationship with Gd, if you wait until things are bad to reach out, you may not have the structure and relationships you need. However, if you establish that relationship when things are not dire, the lines of communication and connection are open and available to you when you need them most.
I also answered questions about everything from what it was like to keep my sanity when being interviewed by Howard Stern to how my science degree informs my parenting.
I raced to the airport and found a prayer book from my host family that they had tucked into my bag without me knowing. The inscription confirmed something I felt this whole weekend: that I am part of every Jewish family on this planet.
Thank you, Pittsburgh, for your strength in each other. Thank you for letting me be a part of your lives for one weekend. Thank you for your honesty, your laughter and your tears. Thank you David and Becca and Azi, Caleb and Ayelet for your vegan blondies, your orange juice, your mangoes, and your patience with me. And for letting me entertain you with mom science facts which my kids have already heard.
Thank you to the Gd of my understanding for placing me in a position to get to see and learn so much from so many people. And thank you for a heart that can hold the beauty, the tragedy, and everything in between.