The Pittsburgh Tragedy Demands That We Embrace Life — And One Another


It is a Jewish impulse to derive meaning from tragedy. It can be an especially difficult task when the tragedy defies reason, like a gunman’s attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 worshippers dead, on Oct. 27, 2018, one year ago this Sunday. The shooting left all of us grasping for answers, and contemplating all the ways we feel vulnerable in this most welcoming of nations and at this most divisive of times.

There is no one “lesson” from the tragedy of 10/27, but there are several areas in which we need to display both caution and creativity.

Jewish institutions have further secured their buildings, partnering with police, training volunteers and installing technologies that can stop or slow an intruder. Such measures, often made possible with government funding, are essential not only in stopping the next Pittsburgh or Poway, but in giving visitors peace of mind. The danger is that we turn synagogues and JCCs into fortresses, or, as seen in Europe, anonymous facades behind which Jews appear to hunker. We need to work hard to keep our institutions welcoming spaces, and not afford haters the victory of fear.

Echoing Hillel, our community response must be internal and particular but not so parochial that we forget about other targeted groups and populations. Jews in Pittsburgh were overwhelmed by the outpouring of aid and affection from Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. It was solidarity achieved through years of coalition-building, and recognizing that, despite our differences and disagreements, an attack on one minority or house of worship is an attack on us all.

The shooting in Pittsburgh was the worst violent attack on Jews in America’s history, but it was also one of 340 mass shootings in the United States in 2018, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Most Americans agree on the need for sensible gun safety laws that lessen the frequency and deadliness of such assaults. We need to put aside our knee-jerk objections, on all sides, to find the remedies — universal background checks and red flag laws, to take two popular examples — that could save the lives of innocents.

And while we need to be vigilant about anti-Semitism, we owe it to each other to stop weaponizing Jew-hatred to score political points. We need to fight white supremacy in all its guises as well as anti-Israel activism that takes on classically anti-Semitic forms. We need to call out Republicans who cozy up to white supremacists here and abroad as well as Democrats who tolerate vicious double standards when it comes to Israel. Anything less, and we betray the victims of Pittsburgh, who died not because they were on the right or the left, but because they were Jews.

Most of all, we need to come together. Tree of Life took its name from Proverbs: “It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” The phrase is a metaphor for Torah, which has deep roots, a single trunk and many branches. It reminds us what we share despite all the different paths we take. The most fitting memorial to the 11 martyrs of 10/27 is focusing on what brings us together as Jews and rejecting what tears us apart.

Full coverage: Pittsburgh: One Year Later