‘Have you seen your daughter’s Instagram account? You need to read it.”
An unprecedented trauma had struck Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and the Jewish community as a whole. What had my daughter said to the world but not yet to me? How was my 15-year-old daughter coping? What, I nervously wondered, was going on in her head?
At first, I figured, she had shared her fears about personal safety in the face of violent anti-Semitism. In my household, discussions about anti-Semitism are not new — in Israel or Europe. But here, in America? Eleven Jews murdered in shul, for no other reason than that they were Jewish? We had hoped that our generation, our America, would be different. And here we are in the week marking 80 years since Kristallnacht, the protective glass of our security shattered. Are Jewish institutions safe? Can she walk down the street with visible signs of her Jewishness?
My daughter also has a father who is a rabbi. Maybe she wrote about her fear of seeing her dad go to work every day in a synagogue and leading services every Shabbat. Maybe she is trying to figure out why her Sabbath-observant father now carries a cell phone in his pocket when he goes to shul — just in case. “Just in case what?” she may be asking. What does it mean to live in a country where Jews need to ask such questions? Maybe these were the sorts of questions she was posting about.
If I were a teenager, I would be a bit confused about anti-Semitism. This act was perpetrated by a white nationalist on the far right. But what about anti-Semitism on the far left — BDS and otherwise? Are all anti-Semitisms equal and equally threatening? My daughter has been taught to believe that what is good for Israel is good for the Jewish people. But what about our moment, when the political left, the historic stronghold of Jewish liberalism, is proving inhospitable to expressions of support for Israel and its supporters? Or the political right, where segments of the Jewish community have given a pass to behaviors and politics antithetical to Jewish values, a political calculation that is believed to be in Israel’s best interests. Maybe my daughter was asking at what point will these Jews wake up to the fact that at stake is not just the security of Israel, but also the security of Jews in America, and, for that matter, the very integrity of the Jewish value system we purport to hold dear?
Maybe she wrote about the hate-filled tweets pouring out from the highest office in the land. Perhaps she is saddened by the realization that she is growing up in a time where the occupant of the White House has abdicated any semblance of moral leadership. Anti-Semitism long preceded this president, and it would strain credulity for my daughter to imagine that a person with Jewish children and grandchildren could be an anti-Semite. But any high school student knows that hateful speech leads to violence. No different than in the run-up to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination — unchecked speech can be weaponized.
Maybe my daughter senses that Saturday’s attack was an assault on a vision of America itself. A vision of an America that welcomes the stranger and the huddled masses yearning to be free. An America that celebrates difference, that dignifies views not one’s own, that embraces the other, that knows itself to be only as strong as its weakest link. She could have written about gun laws, she could have written about immigration laws. She is a resourceful sort. Maybe her post included a link asking everyone to give to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to support a community in crisis.
So I finally read what she wrote. Attached to her post was a photograph of her, her siblings and cousins at their grandmother’s house in Squirrel Hill. The post reads:
“I got home from shul on Saturday morning and my brother told me that there had been a shooting in Pittsburgh. The three seconds before my brother told me our family was okay my heart dropped. I couldn’t breathe if a shooting had been what killed my grandparents or cousins. The other main Conservative shul in Pittsburgh was where my parents got married and my mom had her bat mitzvah. This picture was taken at my grandparents’ house in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, less than a mile away from the Tree of Life Synagogue. I’ve been going to Pittsburgh for as long as I have been alive. I even want to live there when I am older and the shooting that happened does not change that. We become numb to shootings and tragedies like this and don’t think so hard about them until they become personal. This shooting was personal. My mom knows people who died. My grandparents, friends and family all know the 11 people who we lost yesterday. A lot of people posted about what happened or just mentioned it some way and then went on with their lives whether that is a Halloween party or homework or something else. Not half an hour this weekend went by without me thinking about this. However, with all of this said, we must live for the people who have died. Remember them by finding joy in our lives and of course not forgetting their names and honoring the lives they lived before they were gone.”
I read her post, and I read it again. I was comforted, I was humbled and proud. Proud of her, her wisdom and resilience. Proud to be reminded that even rabbis have a lot to learn about what people need to hear in times of loss and sorrow. That there is a time for everything under the heavens, and that first and foremost was the time to weep. That in this world where adults never fail to wag their fingers at the next generation for possessing a diminished attention span, it is a teenager who can remind us that we dare not go back to business as usual. It is a teenager who reminds us that our first task is to remember. To remember the dead and redouble our efforts to the living. To build a future that exemplifies the very values of those remembered, and to honor their lives by finding joy in the brief and uncertain span of our own existence.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.