Silence and Solidarity: Reflections from Pittsburgh

October 30, 2018Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

What I am left with is the silence. 

Standing outside of Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a normally busy neighborhood of Pittsburgh, it was eerily quiet. Overcast and cold, blocked by a police barricade, the only movement came from law enforcement and tv crews in the unnerving stillness.

It was Sunday morning. There should have been parents dropping off their children for Sunday School, people out walking, dogs on leashes, bikes on the road. Instead it was just… silent.

Saturday, October 27 marked one of the darkest days in American Jewish history. During Shabbat morning services, a gunman carrying an AR-15 style rifle and three handguns entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and opened fire. When all was said and done, 11 Jews, gathered to worship in peace, regulars of Saturday morning prayer, members of our extended Jewish family, lay murdered in their house of worship.

There are no easy words of comfort in times like these. We are confronting unanswerable theological questions. As I said on Sunday, as a father I, too, have to make decisions about the safety of my family in our sacred spaces. We are afraid. I am afraid.

When I sat down to write this reflection, I thought back over my time in Pittsburgh this weekend.

I thought back to my arrival at Temple Ohav Shalom which, despite the fear and uncertainty of the moment, refused to cancel the URJ Day of Leadership Learning scheduled to take place at their synagogue.

I thought back to the remarkable Sunday evening vigil near Squirrel Hill where thousands gathered in support and solidarity.

I thought back to Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center for Pittsburgh, who announced $70,000 in funds raised from the Muslim community toward the care and support of the local Jewish community.

I thought back to Reverend Vincent Kolb who, as he reiterated Pittsburgh’s commitment as an open and welcoming sanctuary city, was met with spontaneous chants of “VOTE. VOTE. VOTE.”

Most of all, I thought back to a question I heard from a student at the University of Pittsburgh Hillel. Faced with the daunting task of processing Saturday’s violence, this student asked me: “After Parkland, has nothing changed?”

This question broke my heart. Then I realized, something has changed. We have changed.

Our people are grappling with the reality that, though anti-Semitism has always existed, this act of violence—gunning down Jews in a house of worship—is unprecedented in the United States. We are asking ourselves: how do we keep ourselves safe and secure in Jewish spaces? How do we ensure that Jews of color are not targeted or profiled in the name of this security? How do we ensure this never happens again—to any community, not just our own?

The answer is that we will not change who we are. We will confront these challenges head on, comforted and bolstered by the resilience of our community. We must remain steadfast in the work of tikkun olam, the work that began with Creation and continues to this day. And we will do this work together.

NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, joined by our passionate college student leaders and the full weight of the RAC, will continue to lead us in sustained, meaningful gun violence prevention advocacy in Florida, Washington State, and across the United States.

The 200th congregation just signed the Brit Olam, publicly reaffirming its commitment to meaningful social justice work, grounded in our sacred and enduring Jewish values. They join a growing network of congregations working in concert to repair our world. 

The RAC’s Civic Engagement Campaign has helped tens of thousands of Reform Jews mobilize around this year’s midterm election (now just days away). We may cast our ballots with heavy hearts, but we will vote proudly, with optimism for the better future we will build together.

So, to this student and to the entire Reform Movement I say: something has changed. Our resolve, already so strong, has hardened even further. We are stronger than ever and together we will overcome this. For those asking what can be done to push us forward, I offer this suggestion:

  • VOTE. If you can’t vote, canvass. If you can’t canvass, phone bank. This election, now only days away, will have a profound and long-lasting impact on the way our nation addresses the treatment of refugees and immigrants, the profound challenge of gun violence, the erasure of the transgender community, and so many other critical contemporary issues.

Let our deeds of justice and our words of love turn the silent stillness of death into the possibility of liberty and new life. 

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