I am a Pittsburgh Jew. Though I have not lived in the Steel City since the late 1970s and am a rather lax practitioner of the Reform wing of my faith, I was raised wrapped in the social and family fabric of that community. Bar Mitzvah at Rodef Shalom, which was on lockdown as a hater shot apart Tree of Life up the road, I was also raised in the secular faiths of Pittsburgh, and the miracles of Mazeroski’s magical blast, and Franco’s Immaculate Reception.
My family of first-gen assimilationist Jews moved from Squirrel Hill, where Tree of Life and probably a dozen other synagogues are a major feature of the landscape, to Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs in the 1950s. They were the first in their families to earn degrees, but followed a legacy of heading off for their own futures. So, while my parents grew up in neighborhoods that had overwhelming Jewish presence both culturally and religiously, they raised me and my sisters in gentile communities.
Attending public school in the east side, I was routinely subject to anti-Semitic slurs. Friends and classmates call me “jew” and “kike” in their notes in my 8th and 9th grade yearbooks from Forest Hill Junior High School. One called me “tax collector.”
Looking back on these now, I don’t feel ill will for the young teens who wrote these. I think, instead, about the environment in which they grew up, the messages they were taught by their parents about Jews, or others who did not share their faith/color/norms of sexuality or gender, etc. I wonder, which of them matured into global citizens and learned to not just stop scorning or hating, to not just tolerate difference, but to embrace diversity of all forms. And which went deeper into their prejudice and fear and are thriving in the neo-fascism of this moment.
I have a cousin and relatives of good friends who attend Tree of Life. My uncle and aunt were lifetime members and would have been there, had they not passed years ago. None of the people I am close to were present, though I am sure they know the victims. Really, we all know the victims. They are flawed, loving people, doing their best to make their way through the world.
We go on most days with a veil of ignorance or avoidance of the hate and evil that lives in this world. Then a sucker punch, or shots from an automatic rifle, lifts the veil for a moment and all the pain and horror rushes in. This weekend it was Pittsburgh Jews, or all Pittsburghers, or all Jews. Next time it could as easily be Gays, Sikhs, or Quakers, Blacks or Chinese, Girl Scouts or Toastmasters, painters or musicians. For, really, in this world, we are all at risk. And in the face of evil, likely none of our oppressions are special. Even though this one feels special to Pittsburgh Jews.
The shooting happened the day before the 50th yahrzeit – or anniversary – of my father’s death. As a young surgeon in a time before there were emergency room specialists, he might well have been the doc on call were this to have happened in his lifetime. In fact, three Jewish medical staff met the shooter as he was wheeled under heavy police guard into a local hospital.
My soul reels thinking about the Jews on staff at Allegheny General charged with saving the life of Robert Bowers. I imagine them so filled with their passion for the Hippocratic Oath and their love of healing that they tarried not a moment before doing their utmost to treat him.
Surely, it must be that kind of love that is the key to humankind overcoming the evil that rains bullets on elderly worshipers, on school children, on people dancing their troubles away at a disco.
Still dwelling in the ozone-spiked mist of blown emotional circuits that I’ve experienced since learning of the Tree of Life Massacre, I struggle to feel where that love lives in our world, and how to nurture it. But I try to lean into the faith I’ve gained, from my childhood as a Pittsburgh Jew, my exposure to the practices of other faiths, and my work to alleviate homelessness, poverty and oppression in Seattle. I remember what a dear friend who survived the holocaust of homelessness preaches every day: Love Wins.
I’m no scholar of my faith, but please permit me to close with a slight adaption of this part of the Prayer for Healing, or Mi Shebeirach:
May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for the health of those suffering in Pittsburgh and elsewhere around the world. May all be restored and their strength revived. May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.