We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers: Remembering Tree of Life one year later

26 Oct

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 2, 2018. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Tree of Life shooting and aftermath.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?…

Do you recognize these words? They are the opening lyrics of “Seasons of Love” from the hit musical “Rent.” 

They come to mind as I reflect on the last year, or, to be precise, the last 364 days. On October 27, exactly 52 weeks ago today at this very minute many of us were in services just like we are now. We were celebrating Shabbat in community. Then cell phones started buzzing. Word spread quickly that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. I was crestfallen when I learned it was Tree of Life, a historic Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill. I knew people from there, including their Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun and his son Rabbi Jonathan Berkun who leads Aventura-Turnberry Jewish Center, a few miles south of here. 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. 

  • Joyce Fienberg, 75
  • Richard Gottfried, 65
  • Rose Mallinger, 97
  • Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
  • Cecil Rosenthal, 59
  • David Rosenthal, 54
  • Bernice Simon, 84
  • Sylvan Simon, 86
  • Daniel Stein, 71
  • Melvin Wax, 88
  • Irving Younger, 69

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.

As that week wore on, 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 had worked in the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the entire Steelers team was in attendance at their funeral.

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. 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, movie theaters, concerts, churches. Our own community was just a few months removed from the Parkland massacre, and we knew all too well about the devastation of a mass shooting. 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. Tragically, the shooter in Pittsburgh created a template that  was followed exactly six months later on the last day of Passover when another shooter attacked the Chabad of Poway, CA, and murdered Lori Gilbert Kaye after she jumped in front of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and saved his life. And the sick ideology of the Pittsburgh and Poway shooters was exported back to Germany where earlier this month on Yom Kippur gunmen attempted an attack on a synagogue in Halle.

Looking back a year later at the Tree of Life shooting, I remember feeling the loss personally. I have never lived in Pittsburgh, but suddenly I felt my own home was attacked. At the community vigil that took place here in this B’nai Torah sanctuary on October 30 at which at least 1500 people crammed into this space, Rabbi Englander called to the bimah everyone who had ever lived in Pittsburgh. What a powerful moment it was when several dozen people came forward! (I’d like to ask for a show of hands today of everyone who has lived in or has roots in Pittsburgh.)

As we reflect on a year since the Tree of Life shooting, an attack on our extended family, I wonder aloud if it is possible to channel our grief and anger into something other than despair. I believe it is not only possible but  obligatory. Before I tell you about how I confronted my own despair, I’d like to reflect on this morning’s Torah portion, which lays the groundwork for the entire book of Genesis, which, in turn, provides us with some guidance we need at this critical moment. 

At the heart of Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis, we find one central question. In the Torah’s origin story of the human race, we learn about the very first murder: Cain kills his brother Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answersלא ידעתי– —”I don’t know.” Then Cain adds his infamous question,—השומר אחי אנוכי “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis; however, it’s his question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” that forms the bedrock for the rest of the book. Time and again in the text we encounter terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, though not physically violent. As we once again work our way through Bereshit over the next couple of months, we will find one chapter will unfold into another, generation will follow generation, and repeatedly, our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers. 

Spoiler alert: eventually the tide turns. Suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He reconciles with them in the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history.  Genesis begins with a question: השומר אחי אנוכי—Is humanity capable of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is, finally, yes. 

Thousands of years after the Torah was written, we ask ourselves once again, “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” The answer still must be a resounding, “Yes.” In the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting, the people of Pittsburgh answered yes.

CBS’s “60 Minutes” produced a moving segment last week on the first anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting. Lesley Stahl interviewed Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life who drew a sharp contrast between the aftermath of the shooting and Kristallnacht in Germany 80 years earlier. In Kristallnacht, police and firefighters either did nothing or actively participated in the mob violence. In Pittsburgh, first responders immediately put their lives on the line to save Jews. When the shooting stopped, the entire community came together. Christians, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, all enveloped the Jewish community in a communal hug of solidarity. 

While I drew solace from the unity of the Pittsburgh community and the outpouring of support from all segments here in Boca Raton, I still felt a great sense of personal despair and helplessness.  A few weeks later, I was blessed to receive a call to action—an opportunity for me to go to Pittsburgh on a chaplaincy mission to bear witness to stories first hand and to provide a measure of comfort to the community. Specifically, I was one of several rabbis called on by the Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh to provide support on the ground in Squirrel Hill. 

Rabbi Ed Bernstein in front of Tree of Life Synagogue, Dec. 14, 2018

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 their congregation. They typically were the first ones in the door on Shabbat and they all regularly read Torah and haftarah, and led davening every Shabbat. Mel, Dan and Rich were all past presidents of the congregation. Rich was the gabbai, the one who called people up to the Torah and rolled the scroll to the correct position. Since these three were so active in running services, 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. I sat at Shabbat meals on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and heard congregants still processing the events, all while stubbornly and joyously celebrating Shabbat together. I met Sharon Stein, widow 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 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.

New York York Times columnist Bari Weiss, a Pittsburgh native, celebrated her bat mitzvah at Tree of Life and was so personally shaken by the shooting she wrote a book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” Among her many wise suggestions on how Jews can respond to anti-Jewish hostility from various segments of society is for all of us  to “lean in” to Judaism, “to practice a Judaism of affirmation, not a Judaism of defensiveness.” Similarly, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in the Forward this week that rather than react to antisemitism only with “oy,” we need to respond with joy—the joy of being Jewish, joy we actively create ourselves. 

Beth Kisseleff, wife of New Light’s Rabbi Perlman, published a column last month in the JTA about the meaning of entering a Jewish new year for her community and affirming the joy of being Jewish:

Beth writes: “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.”

The New Light Congregation inspires me because in the face of devastating loss, they are leaning in to Judaism and they, together with Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and the broader Pittsburgh Jewish community continue to seek out the joy of Judaism. 

Since last October 27, the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill did not give up. They resolved to strengthen the bonds of their community and to celebrate Jewishness. They have strengthened their Jewish community through modeling our most sacred values including their firm affirmation that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Their response to violence and hatred is joy and love. 

It is easy to fall into despair in the face of horrendous violence in our world. And yet, the Torah reminds us that Cain does not have the last word. The arc of Genesis answers Cain’s question that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring lovingkindness into the world. 

About five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes ago the world as we knew it was shattered. But the song “Seasons of Love” ends by urging us: 

“Remember the love

Measure in love

Measure, measure your life in love

Seasons of love

Seasons of love”

A traditional Jewish way of expressing this sentiment is found in the Psalms: Olam Hesed Yibaneh—the world will be built through love. On this solemn anniversary, let us honor the memory of our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh with our resounding pledge to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and to build the world with love. 

In your Shabbat leaflets, please find the song “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. Let us join Cantor Fishman in singing this prayer, and may the words enter our hearts. 

Olam Chesed Yibaneh—I Will Build This World From Love

Lyrics and music by Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Olam Chesed Yibaneh… yai dai dai—4x

I will build this world from love… yai dai dai 

And you must build this world from love… yai dai dai 

And if we build this world from love… yai dai dai 

Then God will build this world from love… yai dai dai


I delivered this sermon on October 26, 2019, at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton. My thanks to Rabbis David Steinhardt and David Englander for their kind invitation for me to speak and to Cantor Magda Fishman who led the congregation in singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh.”

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