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.


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