Honoring Our Elders, Trees Of Life


For Jews everywhere, these past few weeks have been a whirlwind of grief and apprehension. As a college student, I’ve watched my friends across the country plan vigils, Torah-learning programs and charity initiatives to begin to mourn the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers.

When I got the call asking me to speak at NYU’s vigil, which would end up drawing hundreds of people, I felt honored yet overwhelmed by the responsibility. In our tradition, each person is a universe. To mourn 11 universes, all so filled with rich life and promise, seemed impossible.

Unfortunately, we’re in a time where Jews from different communities seem distant from one another. Being in college, this is even more evident. Even without the obvious political and religious divides, we all have separate schedules, micro-communities and priorities. Yes, our generation has a lot of wisdom to offer, but I felt the need to look back at my own ancestry for guidance. Perhaps a shared past could bring the student body together.

As I typed up my remarks with trepidation, my mind raced with memories of my grandparents. Thankfully, my parents grew up in places where being Jewish wasn’t a danger or a burden. They had the benefit of strong community life, Jewish role models and Jewish education. My grandparents, however, grew up in a drastically different world.

Half of them were Holocaust survivors, the other half profoundly affected by the Shoah; without having a true homeland, being Jewish for them was joyful but sorrowful. My great-uncle, Arthur Kahn, was executed in Germany, at the start of the Holocaust in 1933. He was a medical student with strong intellectual talent, and he was murdered in Dachau.

Years ago, when my maternal grandfather succumbed to Alzheimer’s, he reverted back to the name he went by in his youth, Al. His real name Abraham, or Abe, was too Jewish, and he’d been afraid of being beaten mercilessly by non-Jews in the neighborhood.

By remembering the joy and hardships my grandparents endured, they continue to live within me. And so will those killed in Pittsburgh. Losing these beloved elders of the Jewish community leaves our trees without roots, and our present and future fractured and unclear.

These dear Jews, ranging in age from 54 to 97, will not feel the freedom and simcha (happiness) of peoplehood. They will no longer bask in the glory of their legacies, personal and communal. Their last moments were filled with all too familiar terror. Targeted as Jews, now they’re martyrs.

The bris ceremony that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue on the day of the shooting is a reminder that in our tradition, happiness is often tinged with sadness.

When I finished speaking at NYU, an older woman sitting in the front row told me how my words had touched her. She then stood up and held my hand. With tears in our eyes, we embraced.

My friend, Ilana Symons, a senior at NYU and a Pittsburgh native, spoke at the vigil as well, and I reached out to her in the weeks since the attack.

“I’ve definitely noticed a shift away from talking about it. I think part of that is not wanting to inundate ourselves with negative feelings and part is that life must move on. I keep thinking about how jarring it was to see ‘Pittsburgh’ and ‘synagogue’ splattered across the news as they are two things that have been such positive forces in my life,” Symons said.

She continued, “I felt so supported by various communities around NYU. … However, I worry about whether people will ‘show up’ in between tragedies or just in light of them.”

In light of Pittsburgh, at our beloved Bronfman Center, we now are required to show IDs out of safety concerns. As a board member of multiple clubs, I’ve seen a slight transformation of the center from a homey place where everyone knows each other to yet another regulated and cautious Jewish space, vulnerable to terror. And friends on campus who hadn’t thought about Judaism since their bar/bat mitzvahs are approaching me, asking questions, fearful and confused.

Still, there is a light. My generation is now motivated to fight anti-Semitism wherever we see it. We feel a connection to our fellow Jews and recognize how we’re all hurting. Some of us turn to prayer, others to culture, others to organizing. Configuring own Jewish identities has become more urgent, more weighty.

Before coming to campus last year, I decided to wear a bracelet on my wrist with a quote that encompassed my warmest feelings of Judaism. It was part of a song I sang every week in synagogue and knew it would give me the strength to be a proud Jew day in and day out. I knew that the quote from Proverbs was how I wanted to end my speech that Monday afternoon.

“It is a tree of life to those who take hold of it, and those who support it are fortunate.”

Doria Kahn is a sophomore at NYU.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.