I cannot fully articulate the pit that developed in my stomach when I approached a shul that was blocked off with caution tape, video cameras, and bouquets of flowers. At the time, I was unsure if the bodies of these eleven Jewish souls–zichronam li’vracha, may their memories be a blessing–were still inside. At first glance, the Tree of Life, Or L’Simcha Congregation, felt bare to me.
This Etz Chayim, that has held its supporters week after week for 154 years, lost its most enduring leaves. Eleven individuals’ lives were taken in the very building where they served so humbly and fully, and six remain in critical condition at this very moment. All of this life felt so inaccessible from where I stood. The pouring rain and storm clouds hovered over the building, ominously reminding me of how truly small we are. Standing helplessly behind the caution tape, I watched as people passing by stared at this towering building in a daze. I, too, shared in that daze.
Earlier that afternoon, in our state of helplessness, we tried to be as helpful as possible. Yet with each email and phone call we learned that this remarkable Squirrel Hill community was already responding with action. Sign up lists for Shmira (guarding of the bodies) extended through the entirety of the week. Cups of coffee were already delivered to reporters and clergy. Boxes of donuts were already delivered to police officers and medical teams. Rabbis were already meeting with grieving families. Vigils were already scheduled with thousands in attendance.
With each need that arose, the Squirrel Hill community had filled it quickly and lovingly. With these feelings of helplessness, I turned inward. It was so humbling to be a spectator in a community that was sprouting new life amidst their grief.
While standing outside in the rain, Rabba Sara reminded me that it was almost 5pm, time to daven mincha. Time to continue in our plans for the remainder of our day. Time to bring this moment of normalcy into a tragic day.
The tenth perek of Tractate Pesachim discusses rules pertaining to reciting blessings before meals. The Gemara argues that members of a group can get up in the middle of a meal [in this case it is to greet a groom or bride] and are not required to make a new blessing before sitting back down to finish eating.
במה דברים אמורים? שהניחו שם זקן או חולה
In what case is this statement said? When they left an elderly or sick person there [at the table]. (Pesachim 101b)
In other cases, if we leave our tables empty when we exit the room—even for a moment—we are required to start our meal over upon return with all of its necessary blessings. With the presence of an elderly person at the table, however, we have the ability to continue our meal without seeing a brief absence as an interruption. The soul of this elderly person holds the table—and time at large—in its place.
While this text really revolves around blessings and their fixed times, there is something profound about the presence of our elders that allows us to simply continue where we left off, rather than start all over.
Our tables will learn how to continue speaking kindness as long as souls like Rose Malinger, Melvin Wax, and Daniel Stein are still sitting at them, holding down our roots for us. Our synagogues will continue to resist anti-semitism and welcome anyone seeking refuge as long as the souls of Jerry Rabinowitz, Joyce Fienberg and Richard Gottfried are holding their doors open for us. Our communities will continue to build a world of love as it ought to be as long as the souls of Irving Younger, the Simons, and the Rosenthal brothers are holding our spaces with their laughter, love, and commitment to the Jewish people.
This tragedy was the interruption—but now the Pittsburgh community need not start over but can eventually just continue doing its holy Jewish work as long as these eleven names continue to dwell among them.
Emily Goldberg Winer is a student at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale. She moved from Montreal after a year of Bnei Mitzvah teaching and youth programming. A Magana Cum Laude graduate of Muhlenberg College, she is passionate about building Jewish communities, leading interfaith dialogue, and creating safe and intentional spaces for the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods and beyond.
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