Pittsburgh — Over the last year, after a gunman killed 11 of our friends and neighbors at the Tree of Life synagogue building, I have been involved in crisis response and resiliency planning.
On a weekly basis since November, representatives from the three affected congregations and first-responding agencies, along with victims’ families, have sat together, identifying needs and coordinating responses. I took on the leadership of the planning of the one-year commemoration of the shooting.
As the one-year mark approaches, we are bracing ourselves for the “anniversary effect,” when we will experience a reawakening of the kind of traumatic responses we felt in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Many have asked me what I have learned about trauma and resilience over the past year. It is still too close to be able to sort through and articulate. But several touchpoints come to mind.
The first week I felt and observed what I learned was called “acute traumatic response.” Every day Jewish Pittsburghers were calling 911, reporting what they thought was a bomb or a gun. Teens were vomiting in class and having panic attacks in the hallways. Children were afraid to leave home, or they didn’t want to be home at all. People were not sleeping or eating, or they were doing nothing but sleeping and eating. People were screaming at everyone around them, or they were utterly silent. They could speak of nothing else, or they were unable to discuss the shooting at all.
Over and over again, we heard: “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I sleep or concentrate on anything? Why am I so upset? I didn’t know the victims personally, I’m not in mourning.” Those in the outer circles didn’t feel they had the right to be so distraught. A lot of the work of our mental health and spiritual care providers involved normalizing those experiences.
People from outside Pittsburgh often ask how the community is doing. It is impossible to answer that in a broad brushstroke. Those mourning a loved one or healing from injuries are the most closely impacted. Others, with a more distant connection, may nonetheless be still recovering. We learned from experts that somewhere between 8 percent and 21 percent of the population will develop a mental health diagnosis as a result of the traumatic event.
A sub-group particularly vulnerable are those who were on site or who witnessed the crime scene. Those who hid or ran away from the gunman; the FBI and police who witnessed the physical carnage; the chevra kadisha members who removed body parts and blood from the building and washed maimed bodies — all are at risk of ongoing traumatic response.
But even those far less closely impacted nonetheless could be vulnerable because of past trauma or childhood history of abuse, violence or poverty. We do not always know how someone’s history could be informing their path to healing.
“We feel we are targets wherever we go, because we’re so visibly Jewish,” an Orthodox rabbi told me back in November, referring to the head coverings and clothing that make the Jews in that community so recognizable. A neighborhood watch has been put into place, with Jews on the lookout in public spaces where Orthodox children would play on Shabbat afternoons.
On Chanukah, the fear of being visibly Jewish intensified. Chabad’s large Chanukah menorahs, as usual, were placed outside homes and on street corners. Pirsum HaNes, the command that we publicize the miracle by placing the Chanukah lamp in public view, always signified Jewish pride to me. But now, that pride was tainted by fear. Our homes and institutions were more identifiably Jewish with a chanukiah in the window. What violence might that custom incite? Indeed, on the seventh night of Chanukah, many Jewish homes in Squirrel Hill were littered by Ku Klux Klan fliers. To place a Chanukah menorah in a window felt like an act of courage.
Now it is Sukkot. An observant friend feared, for the first time, putting up her sukkah in the front yard. She tried to erect the holiday booth in the back of the house, but the slope of the yard prohibited it. “So, post-shul-massacre, I’ve identified our house, come what may,” she writes on social media.
After attacks, people like to talk about strength. “Stronger Than Hate,” using an altered Steelers logo, was widely printed on signs and T-shirts. This was inspiring but also distressing. We learned that talking about “Pittsburgh Strong” actually can make some people feel worse, because they don’t necessarily feel strong, but think that they are supposed to.
There is no blueprint or formula for resilience. It is as unique as the responses to trauma. Some in the community find hope and energy from activism on causes such as gun control or immigration. Others find meaning in re-embracing Jewish ritual and values. Some find their strength in standing in solidarity with diverse communities who are themselves facing hate or violence. One of my children finds solace in reflecting and writing about other atrocities. For some survivors I’ve spoken with, resilience begins when they are able to see this massacre as one part of their life story, but not the entirety.
For me, what feels the most healing is making room for joy. The first Friday after the attack, I hosted sheva brachot (a festive meal) for a couple who had gotten married on Oct. 28, the day after the attack. Everyone around the table knew someone who had died or had some connection to one of the congregations. Here we were, grieving and still in shock, while also rejoicing with the new couple.
Days later, my daughter had her 15th birthday party, with friends in attendance who were members of the affected congregations. They celebrated, and they sat quietly and talked about the shooting while holding hands, and then celebrated some more. The joy we were able to muster at those moments felt truly life affirming.
And it continues. Two victims who were injured in the shooting had family weddings in recent months where they were able to smile, dance and rejoice. Tree of Life Congregation will mark the victims’ Hebrew yahrtzeit on Nov. 16 with both a memorial service and a celebration of a congregant’s 100th birthday. The intermingling of sadness and simcha has been part of the Jewish story for centuries. Through letting ourselves experience joy, I believe we will slowly find hope and, perhaps, even strength.
Rabbi Amy Bardack is the director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. She lives in Squirrel Hill.
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