Archive | October, 2019

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There! (And other ways to confront mortality)

9 Oct

Political activist Ady Barkan is fighting for social justice even as he fights ALS.

I will never forget those eyebrows. “Larry” (a pseudonym) had a piercing gaze and communicated by moving his eyebrows. Larry was a patient in the hospice program in which I serve as a chaplain. Larry was an advertising executive and a writer. He was a loving husband, father, son, and brother. And Larry had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a terminal neurological illness. By the time I met Larry for the first time in his home in 2017 he already could not speak with with his natural voice. He used the Tobii Dyanvox device that allowed him to type words or select phrases by looking at a computer screen. A synthesized voice would then “say” the words from a speaker. He sat in a special wheelchair and required 24-hour care. Over the next two years I visited Larry many times and found we had much in common. He was a Jewish man about my age. Like me, he grew up in the Chicago area. We discovered we had several mutual friends. His arms and legs were emaciated and paralyzed, but those eyes and eyebrows! They were full of life. 

Larry fought to engage in this world and experience life to the fullest extent that he could. Over the next two years he published a children’s book as well as several articles in Jewish newspapers chronicling his experience with ALS. When I visited him, we talked about his recent works. He told me he had once played guitar in a rock band, something he missed terribly, and we listened to his favorite classic hard rock hits. We listened to Jewish songs. We prayed. We sat together in silence. Larry died in May, 2019. I felt the loss personally and was very sad. I lost not only a patient but a friend. 

Around the same time that I got to know Larry I became aware of another young Jewish man with ALS. His name is Ady Barkan, a 35-year-old lawyer and political activist. Ady graduated from Columbia University and Yale Law School. He clerked for a Federal Judge. His wife Rachael is a professor of English and they have a three-year-old son Carl and a baby on the way. Ady, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, was on last year’s Forward 50 list of the fifty most important Jews in America. He is a galvanizing political organizer. 

Ady was diagnosed with ALS in 2016. He has since lost use of his legs, arms and back muscles. Recordings of his public speaking over the last few years document the decline of his voice until he had to start using the computerized synthetic voice that he, like Larry, operates by typing words with his eyes. Last month he had a tracheostomy so that he could breathe with a ventilator. He now requires 24-hour care.  Comparing photos and video of Ady now with those at the start of his illness reveal substantial weight loss and physical decline. 

And yet, Ady still channels his razor-sharp mind, keen media savvy and iron-clad will to call for justice, particularly for universal health-care. Ady recently published a memoir, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance. He articulates his vision for many political issues; however, at the heart of his book is his confrontation with his mortality. 

While much of Ady’s progressive advocacy work resonates for me personally, my interest on Yom Kippur is to reflect on Ady’s courage in confronting his illness. He makes poignant expression of his existential crisis as his illness progressed and he developed one symptom, then another, then another. Ady describes the emotional trauma of the illness and the psychological and spiritual guidance that he sought. He started going to therapy and received guidance in meditation from different spiritual traditions. He writes that the wisdom he received for dealing with pain and tragedy is not to escape or ignore these difficulties. Rather, the goal is to become comfortable and accepting of them. Citing another author, Ady writes, “When the ground is pulled out from under your feet—when you find yourself in free fall—it is a mistake to flail wildly in search of a handhold; instead, you can find peace by accepting your velocity and the fundamental instability, unpredictability, and impermanence of our world. Everything falls apart. That is the nature of things. Enlightenment requires us to accept impermanence rather than rage against it.” Ady reflects further: “The key to enjoying the time that I had left would be to accept life’s impermanence, accept the tragedy, and find comfort even when there was no ground under my feet.”

The psycho-spiritual guidance that Ady received—to be in the present—posed for him a great dilemma. After all, he is a political activist. Everything he does is about not accepting the status quo and demanding change. Ady writes: “Activism and politics were precisely about not accepting the tragedies of the world, about insisting that we could reduce pain and prolong life. Social justice meant creating a stable floor beneath our feet and then putting a safety net under that, to catch us if it suddenly vanished: universal health insurance, affordable housing, unemployment benefits (or, even better, a guaranteed good job) . . . Being part of a progressive political movement was precisely about fighting back and building toward a better future. Accepting was not part of our vocabulary.” Ady’s memoir grows out of this basic tension between accepting the present and fighting for a better future. 

Sylvia Boorstein pithily encapsulates Ady’s tension in the title of her book, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. Boorstein is a Brooklyn-born Jewish writer and speaker who is credited with popularizing Buddhist wisdom in the West. In a light-hearted way, a cartoon expresses the existential tension of Ady Barkan through Boorstein’s clever turn of phrase. 

Boorstein comments: “What makes the cartoon funny is that that old guy IS doing something. He is fuming! He is mad! He is just holding it in rather than shouting it out, and clearly, it cannot be good for him. I think the phrase needs notation, like music, to let the reader know where the accent goes: Don’t JUST do something (i.e. impulsively respond) — Think It Over!…[I]t is valuable to be still for long enough to figure out what would be the most helpful thing to do.”

The wisdom expressed by Sylvia Boorstein and discovered by Ady Barkan has deep roots in Jewish tradition. In particular, Un’tane Tokef, a central prayer of the High Holidays, forces us to confront the tension between “sitting there” and acknowledging our mortality, on the one hand, and “doing something” to ease suffering of the other. 

Un’tane Tokef  lays bare our fragility and mortality. The poet writes: 

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת, מִי בְקִצּוֹ, וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ, מִי בָאֵשׁ וּמִי בַמַּיִם,

On Rosh Hashanah the judgments will be written down And on Yom Kippur they will be sealed: How many will pass on and how many will be created, Who will live and who will die, Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water…

And on it goes through multiple scenarios of how we might meet our demise. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous  (Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef (Prayers of Awe)). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.) comments on the harrowing starkness of this poem. She writes: “Many of us struggle to overcome the terror of death through avoidance and repression…But our tradition compels us to recognize that afar anachnu, “All we are is dust” (Psalm 103:14)—the end is inescapable.”  Rabbi Brous reflects further: “The centrality of Un’taneh Tokef in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflects the Rabbis’ understanding that an awareness of our deep vulnerability is the very essence of the religious and spiritual life. ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.’ There’s simply no time for denial or escapism.”

In other words, we’re called to “sit there” and reflect on our limitations as humans. 

However, once we accept our mortality, we are then able to look forward. As the prayer reaches its climax, it calls on us to recommit ourselves to living a certain kind of life, or to “just do something”:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.

Rabbi Brous teaches:  “Our tradition, in all its wisdom, demands that we obliterate the false protective shelter and, knowing that each moment might be our last, fight for a life of meaning today. The High Holy Days force us to shift from denial of death to purposeful engagement with life.” Rabbi Brous notes, “We can’t dictate our fate. We can’t hide from death. But there are three things that we can do to bring meaning into the radical uncertainty of our lives” (Brous, p. 143)

First is T’shuvah (repentance): Rabbi Brous writes: “You don’t have to be a static, stagnant being, dwelling perpetually in the mistakes of years past. You can choose to make t’shuvah, affirming that life is dynamic and people change. Find the courage to ask for forgiveness from the people you have hurt. Find the strength to forgive those who have hurt you and the audacity to forgive yourself. Open your heart and embrace the people around you—most importantly those you most often take for granted. Hug your kids (and others dear to you).”

Second is T’fillah (prayer): Rabbi Brous teaches, “You don’t have to be alone. You are part of a story that is bigger than you, where the critical currency is God and the soul, not money, power, or celebrity. Let the majesty of nature distract you. Open your heart to pain. Let the world take your breath away. Connect to something beyond the physical, the tangible, the utterly graspable. Allow yourself not to understand and yet to appreciate anyway. Live in mystery.” 

Finally, there’s Tz’dakah (charity):  Rabbi Brous says, “Stop digging yourself further and further into your own dramas, as if the privileges of freedom and prosperity come with no responsibility to others. Open your eyes and give a damn! Let your heart break over illness, poverty, loss, and violence. Affirm the power of love! Bring healing and comfort! Stake your claim in the world!”

Rabbi Brous concludes: ”The challenge of the High Holy Days is to confront the radically unpredictable trajectory of our lives and live as if every single day truly might be our last.”

During the High Holidays we not only confront our mortality during the Un’tane Tokef prayer, but also during Yizkor, the memorial prayers we say for our departed loved ones. Yizkor is a profound experience of “Don’t JUST do something, sit there!”  Technically, we stand during the prayer, but we are called upon to remember our departed. Through deep reflection, we take time out to engage with and validate the pain of their absence. We draw inspiration from the positive influence they had on us and pledge to ourselves to do our best to carry on their legacy. For some of us, we might also engage in the pain of broken relationships we had with our departed while they were alive and forgive ourselves for any repair that did not come about. 

Ady Barkan, in a recently released series of online video interviews with several leading presidential candidates, describes to each of the candidates his own reflections on his legacy in making a difference in our world. He asks each candidate to reflect on the legacy he or she hopes to leave by the time they exit  public life. In these tear-jerker conversations, Ady draws the candidates off of their talking points to reflect deeply on the meaning of life. He has them literally “sit there” in meaningful contemplation.  This series of public reflections on mortality and legacy is by itself a tremendous gift that Ady has given us all.  

Ady refers in his book to the “Serenity Prayer” by the great theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr, a friend and teacher of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Serenity Prayer reflects Un’tane Tokef and asks for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be, and the wisdom to know the difference. Ady embodies the spirit of those words, as did my late friend Larry. 

During Yizkor, I plan to think about Larry and how in the grips of a devastating disease, he left behind a legacy of loving life. He stubbornly affirmed life to his last day through his books, his articles, his smiles and his eyebrow gestures. I will also reflect on how Ady Barkan, suffering from the same disease, is modeling a legacy that when we confront and accept our limited number of days, we increase our efforts to improve the world. 

As we enter Yizkor, don’t JUST do something, sit there. Let us reflect on the legacy of our loved ones. Let us reflect on the legacy we seek to leave for ourselves, and let us return to purposeful action. 


In Search of Holy CHUTZpah

8 Oct

A typical dictionary definition of “chutzpah” might not provide its full array of meanings.

What exactly is chutzpah? Well, to answer that, I refer you the most recent season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” in which he dedicates an entire episode to defining chutzpah. Actually, he dedicates the episode to defining the American pronunciation “CHUTZpah” and the Israeli pronunciation chutzPAH. CHUTZpah and chutzPAH are worlds apart and our problem is that we confuse the two. 

CHUTZpah generally implies audacity, creativity and grit. Chutzpah has deep Jewish roots. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein notes in his book The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, “[T]he Talmud recognized that in every generation, there are certain human beings prepared to stand in the face of any power, even God, to champion life, demand justice, and appeal for compassion. These special souls are said to display ‘chutzpah even in the face of heaven—chutzpah afilu kelapei shemaya’”(See Sanhedrin 105a).

But then there’s chutzPAH. The Israeli-accented version is edgy and bitter. It refers to someone who is unencumbered by shame and has no care about anyone’s life or feelings. “Eizeh chutzpah!” “What chutzPAH! What shameless nerve!” is what an Israeli might say when one driver brazenly cuts off another on a highway. Of course, there is the well known American definition of chutzpah courtesy of Leo Rosten in which a man murders his parents and then at his trial for murder stands before the judge and pleads for mercy because he is now an orphan. Gladwell doesn’t mention that classic scene. It’s too confusing. The shameless murderer who is often cited to explain CHUTZpah is actually guilty of chutzPAH.

Throughout Jewish history our people have lionized CHUTZpah, creative audacity. We reject chutzPAH, shameless nerve and disregard for fellow human beings. In ancient Israel, the prophet played a special role in boldly promoting chutzpah in the face of rampant chutzPAH. The prophet did not wield armies like the monarch, nor control a treasury like the Temple priests. The prophet’s job description and power source were complex. Part oracle, part healer, part messenger, the prophet was endowed with a divine intimacy, able to convey God’s will and sometimes even talk back to God on behalf of the people. 

The prophets who lived during the monarchy drew upon the great prophetic models from the Torah.  Abraham sets the standard when he argues with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah for the sake of the righteous.  Later, Moses stands in the breach and saves the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them for the sin of the Golden Calf. Abraham had the chutzpah to stand up for the righteous; Moses went a step further and protected even the sinners from wanton destruction. And let’s not forget that the very name of our nation, Yisrael, means “wrestle with God,” as Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed.  

The prophet was the arbiter of the covenant between God and Israel. While Abraham and Moses challenge God’s commitment to the covenant, usually it’s the people who need reminders of the terms of the covenant. The prophet’s job is to call out corruption and lawlessness in the priesthood and monarchy because injustice is a breach of the covenant. 

In his 1962 book The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the prophet is an individual willing to say “no” to his society, “condemning its habits and assumptions . . . [and] complacency.” The prophet reminds Israel that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The prophet stands on principle and refuses to be neutral in the face of evil even if it means, as is often the case, living a lonely and deeply unpopular life. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove sums up Heschel saying, “Essentially, the prophet is the voice of dissent.” (From Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, “Something to Say,” 9/7/19) Or, we might say, the voice of chutzpah. Dissent is CHUTZpah, bold action. And against what exactly is the prophet dissenting? ChutzPAH! The Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is the perfect example of courageous chutzpah calling out the chutzPAH of wanton injustice.

In Isaiah chapter 58, the prophet, channeling the word of God says: 

4. Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

5.? הֲכָזֶה יִֽהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when ADONAI is favorable?

In other words, the people’s hypocritical behavior in fasting and beating their chests while at the same time abusing their neighbors is utter chutzPAH. 

The prophet continues: 

6. הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֮ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. 

7 הֲלוֹא פָרס לָֽרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. 

It’s not that fasting and ritual behavior are bad. Rather the prophet insists that our ritual behavior be aligned with our ethical actions. When ritual behavior is out of sync with our ethical actions—when we fast and beat our chests on Yom Kippur but we ignore starvation, oppression and injustice in our midst, that is chutzPAH. That is the core message of the Biblical prophets.

The formal time of the prophets may have ended with the close of the Hebrew Bible more than 2000 years ago; however, the prophetic voice continued to be a vital part of the Jewish psyche. Prophetic chutzpah is not located in any one person, class, or generation. It is an essential attribute, part of the life-force of the Jewish people that has cajoled us and sustained us for generations. Rabbi Heschel himself did not just study the prophetic voice; he embodied it. He fought on behalf of civil rights and protested the Vietnam War. He taught the world through his words and deeds how to take a moral stand and refuse to let that era’s abuses become normalized. Heschel wrote: “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” (“Dissent,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 106). 

The struggle of CHUTZpah as dissent and creative audacity to prevail over chutzPAH, shameless disregard for decency and societal norms, is never easy. ChutzPAH is often quite vicious. I felt the force of its toxicity several weeks ago when the American President pressured the Israeli Prime Minister to prevent two US Congresswomen from entering Israel after which the President tweeted that any Jew who supports the Democratic party is disloyal. This rhetoric was blasphemous and divisive, not to mention utterly false. The incident epitomized chutzPAH. 

ChutzPAH barked at CHUTZpah and accused CHUTZpah of disloyalty. But what if we, as heirs to a long tradition of holy CHUTZpah, leaned in to that disloyalty? What if we reminded the world and ourselves that we have a proud history of disloyalty exemplified by the prophets? I worry sometimes that American Jews have lost our historic Jewish chutzpah of courageous audacity while destructive chutzPAH rages around us. 

Furthermore, let us not forget that America has its own proud tradition of dissent and chutzpah that has cried out against tyranny and oppression. It was rebellion that led to the birth of our nation. Dissenters demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, rights for Native Americans, for Latinos, for African Americans, reproductive rights, and gay rights. Martin Luther King said about his era: “History will . . . record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” In other words, when we are silent, we lack holy CHUTZpah, and the tyranny of shameless chutzPAH prevails. 

As Jews and as Americans, it is neither unpatriotic nor disloyal to voice dissent regarding our government or the government of Israel. Whether it concerns our family, our country, or the State of Israel, to voice dissent from a place of loving CHUTZpah is arguably the most Jewish, most loyal, most Zionist, and most important thing an American Jew can do.

In closing, Elie Wiesel taught “To be human is to doubt. The Hebrew word for ‘question,’ shelah, contains the word for ‘God,’ El. God is in the question.” (Ariel Burger, Witness, p. 100).  God is in the question. God is in the dissent. God is in our holy CHUTZpah. 

On this Yom Kippur, I invite us to seek atonement for any times in the last year when we were silent—when we neglected to muster the appropriate bold CHUTZpah to counter the domineering chutzPAH in our midst. On this Yom Kippur, let us lean in to the voice of the prophet. Let us challenge ourselves to hear the prophetic voice of our tradition and to be inspired to find our own prophetic voice. Let us be inspired to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and may we be blessed with abundant holy CHUTZpah.


(With appreciation for Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s sermon “Something to Say,” 9/7/19, from which some key content in this sermon is adapted.)

Little More Than Angels: Reflections on Pittsburgh and Poway

1 Oct

Little Less Than Angels

Last October 27, I was sitting in Shabbat services at the synagogue when my phone buzzed. We were reading Parashat Vayera, the Torah portion from which the readings of Rosh Hashanah are taken. We had just finished hearing the Binding of Isaac when I felt the vibration in my pocket. My practice for most of my career was not to carry my phone to synagogue on Shabbat. In recent years I have felt safer taking my cell phone with me; however, I keep it in my pocket as opposed to the holster on my belt buckle. I have it if I need it, but it’s slightly less accessible, a reminder to myself that Shabbat is different.

I couldn’t ignore that buzz. Nor could I ignore that other people in services were checking their phones at that moment. I grabbed my phone and saw headlines from the New York Times and CNN that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. At first the name of the synagogue was not reported. It really did not matter. However, I was particularly crestfallen when I learned it was Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill. I knew people from there, including their Rabbi Emeritus and his son who is a rabbi in Miami. I had visited Squirrel Hill several times before and was familiar with its charming streets, ethnic and racial diversity and cohesive Jewish community. A terrorist attack against Jews in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—how could it happen here?

The next day we learned the names of the eleven Jewish brothers and sisters who were murdered. They were mostly older folks. They were the ones who opened up the building, made sure there was a minyan at the start of services, got kiddush ready, stood at the door to great everyone else as they arrived.

The funerals started, hundreds upon hundreds of people in attendance at each one. The Rosenthal brothers, Cecil and David, were the greeters who wished everyone Shabbat Shalom upon entry. They were both developmentally disabled and known and beloved throughout the community. Their sister works in the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the entire Steelers team was in attendance at their funeral. Steelers linemen were among the pall bearers.

Then, on Friday, November 2, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published its remarkable headline featuring the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew typeface.

David Shribman, the newspaper’s Executive Editor, wrote that day:

“When you conclude there are no words to express a community’s feelings, then maybe you are thinking in the wrong language.

That’s what prompted me to consider whether an excerpt from a 10th century prayer might be the appropriate gesture — of respect, of condolence — for a 21st century audience mourning its dead, whether family, friend, congregant, neighbor or, simply, Pittsburgher.

“The result was a front-page headline spread across the top of the Friday Post-Gazette…that featured the opening of the Jewish mourners’ prayer, known by heart by regular Shabbat observers in our community’s many synagogues, bringing our readers to the heart of the incident that has marked our community, and displaying the heart of this community, including of course the Post-Gazette community.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the shooting and aftermath, and it donated its prize money to the synagogue.

My reaction to the Tree of Life shooting was a combination of intense grief, utter despair, paralyzing fear and deep anger. It was already unacceptable that shootings were regularly taking place in schools, nightclubs (like Pulse), movie theaters, concerts, churches. But in nearly four centuries of Jews on the North American continent, never was there a terror attack on Jews like we saw in Pittsburgh. It would be inaccurate to say this “hit close to home.” This was home!

The same was true exactly six months later when the Chabad of Poway, CA, was attacked on the last day of Passover. Either of these incidents—Pittsburgh and Poway—could easily have been us coming together in our community for Shabbat and holiday services.

All of my complex feelings were intensified by the toxic brew of easy access in this country to firearms, particularly assault weapons, acquired by emboldened racists and antisemites who utilize the Internet to amplify their hatred and incitement to violence.

Today, once again, we read the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. This complex, traumatic story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac can be interpreted many different ways from multiple angles. Today, our first return to the Akeidah since last October 27, an interpretation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks to me.

Rabbi Heschel describes how he studied the Akeidah with his heder rebbe in Poland:

Here is the experience of a child of seven who was reading in school the chapter which tells of the sacrifice of Isaac on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. “He lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard: ‘Abraham, lay not your hand upon the lad, for now I know that you fear God.’ And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked the rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ And I said to him, still weeping, ‘But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.” A key lesson of Heschel is that an angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 104.)

For Pittsburgh, we were too late. For Poway, Parkland and Pulse we were too late as well. We were too late for El Paso and Dayton, and we were too late for Newtown and too late for Charleston.

We are certainly not angels. However, the Psalmist reminds us (8:6) that humans are only a little less than angels. In fact, in some ways humans are better than angels because we have the ability to make ourselves and our society better.

The Jewish community of Squirrel Hill is also made up of angels. Since that dark day, they have stubbornly affirmed life. In the depths of my despair over the Tree of Life shooting, I was blessed to receive a call to action—an opportunity for me to go to Pittsburgh on a chaplaincy mission to provide a measure of comfort for the community.

The Tree of Life building actually housed three separate congregations under one roof. Tree of Life, which is Conservative, New Light, also Conservative, and Dor Hadash, Reconstructionist.

Three out of the eleven murdered were from New Light: Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Dr. Richard Gottfried. They were instrumental in leading and running every aspect of the congregation. They were the first ones in the door on the Sabbath and they all regularly read the haftarah the prophetic sections of Bible chanted after the Torah portion each Saturday. All were past presidents of the congregation. Mel, Dan and Rich frequently led the prayers and Rich was the gabbai, the one to call people up to the Torah and roll the unpunctuated text to the correct position. Since these three were so active in running things, their sudden absence left a terrible void for the congregation. The Rabbinical Assembly and the Pittsburgh Federation coordinated to bring in a different Conservative rabbi each week over three months to support New Light and their rabbi, Jonathan Perlman. I visited the community over a Shabbat in December.

My main ritual task was to read Torah. My other task was just to be present. I heard graphic accounts from Rabbi Perlman about the scene of the carnage revealed in the FBI investigation. I sat at Shabbat meals on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and heard congregants still processing the events, all while celebrating Shabbat together. I met Sharon Stein, wife of Dan Stein, whose grief is unimaginable but who still has come to shul every week since. Among the most moving moments for me was during the mi sheberach prayer for healing when the gabbai paused to read the names of the the six police officers who were injured in the line of duty when they ran into the the synagogue: Officers Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga, Anthony Burke, Timothy Matson, John Persin, Tyler Pashel. New Light could have just closed up, but they have carried on and continue to bring the light of Jewish tradition into the world.

Beth Kisseleff, a writer and wife of Rabbi Perlman, wrote a column few days ago in the JTA about the meaning of this Rosh HaShanah for her community:

“When we hear the shofar, if we hear it as a wail and scream, perhaps we can change our lives and make what comes after Rosh Hashanah irrevocably different from what comes before.

I have seen it happen in my own community. People have changed over the course of the year. Some have made and kept commitments to attend synagogue more regularly. Some of our new haftarah chanters have not used the skill since bar mitzvah, if ever, but are committed to reading every few weeks in honor of our three devoted haftarah readers at New Light — Dan Stein, Rich Gottfried and Mel Wax — who are no longer able to chant the prophetic words. There are those who did not have much interest in the spiritual side of Judaism who now attend any classes we hold. People who have always wanted to learn Hebrew have been studying it for the first time.”

In the aftermath of October 27, the people of Squirrel Hill did not give up. They resolved to strengthen the bonds of their community and to celebrate Jewishness.

The Poway community also faced their violent trauma with resolve. The rabbi of the Chabad, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein wrote a New York Times op-ed two days after the shooting. He lost his right index finger but could have suffered much worse. He wrote, “Today should have been my funeral.” He pays tribute to his congregant Lori Gilbert Kaye, of blessed memory, who jumped in front of the rabbi to take a bullet intended for him and lost her life. He writes: “I do not know why God spared my life. I do not know why I had to witness scenes of a pogrom in San Diego County like the ones my grandparents experienced in Poland. I don’t know why a part of my body was taken away from me. I don’t know why I had to see my good friend, a woman who embodied the Jewish value of hesed (kindness), hunted in her house of worship.

Rabbi Goldstein continues: “I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.”

Finally, Rabbi Goldstein writes, “From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue….”

For Pittsburgh and Poway, we were too late. But the survivors of those attacks taught us that going forward, we will affirm life. In the absence of angels from the sky, we all must strive to act like angels. We must intervene to prevent violence and bloodshed. We must demand sensible laws to get weapons of war off the streets and enact comprehensive background checks.  We must counter antisemitism, racism and all forms of bigotry by modeling love and kindness and strengthening bonds with our neighbors.

As we enter the new year of 5780, I pray that we will be inspired by our brothers and sisters around the country who survived horrific bloodshed and have responded by affirming life.  Let us not wait for angels. Let us never be too late again. Let’s BE angels and bring loving kindness, justice and peace into our world.