Just over a week ago the calm of a quiet Jewish neighborhood on the fringe of Pittsburgh preparing for Shabbat was shattered by a gunman who entered a synagogue, shot eleven people, and wounded several others. I live in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, but when I heard the location of the shooting I went into a panic. Tree of Life synagogue, which had been attacked, is where my CPSP chapter routinely meets. Three members of our chapter are closely tied to that community in one way or another, and one is the Rabbinical leader of New Light Congregation which was beginning services at Tree of Life when the shooting started. Three members of his congregation were killed. Another member of our group, also a Rabbi, was shot as well. It took over a day to find out he had survived but was in critical condition.
The immediate response I had, as well as what most of the city of Pittsburgh had, was that of grief. Every stage of grief, almost all at once.
There was the immediate shock and disbelief that this had happened at all. Residents were glued to their TV’s and social media, trying to find out what had happened and who was involved. The nature and scope of the attack seemed incomprehensible.
People gathered together to find each other and weep. Some were quickly improvised, while others involved leaders from across the world. Every event was filled beyond capacity. People called radio stations to talk and share their grief. Museums and other civic institutions opened their doors for free to allow folks to gather and support one another.
As the hours and days progressed, there was anger towards the gunman, as well as towards elected officials who many felt had helped to create or at least didn’t say enough to stop the hate-filled rhetoric that fuels such violence.
The city itself responded with the vow that we were “stronger than hate.” This slogan became an image that rallied our diverse city together. The shooting became not just an attack on our Jewish population but an attack on us and what we stood for. In the days that followed there were too many fundraisers and events for me to mention. The local Muslim community even raised enough money to cover the funeral expenses for all 11 congregants. A memorial prayer service was attended not only our state’s government leaders but leaders from around the world, including Israel. Attendees spilled out onto the street.
There was blaming and bargaining as well. Some thought that the attack would never have happened if armed guards were present. Others blamed the media, still others blamed lawmakers. Some even blamed the congregation itself for being too liberal politically. I was astonished to find a few people (outside our community obviously) who didn’t believe it happened at all; that it was just a hoax by secret government forces or gun-control activists. After the President announced his desire to visit the site of the shooting to provide support many survivors, community members and city officials asked him not to come – at least so soon. Some felt that the President’s rhetoric indirectly fueled the fire that led to the shooting. However others in the community felt that the President should be respected and given the opportunity to come due to his position. One leader of the synagogue agreed to meet with Trump and his group, while the others did not. Sadly this led to this Rabbi – who had lost members of his own congregation to hatred – being targeted again with death threats. Local talk turned to blaming and condemning others, often along political lines.
The President did visit the site as well as one of our local hospitals which had treated victims of the shooting. The event was rather quiet in comparison to what could have been, even though thousands of protesters lined the streets of the city. I think that’s the best that could have been hoped for, all things considered.
The Presidential visit highlighted some very significant questions about how communities as well as individuals grieve. Who gets to decide who is welcome and who isn’t? When is “too soon”? When is “too late”? Should someone with whom we have an acrimonious relationship be allowed to grieve with us? There is of course no real set answer to these questions. So much hinges on the relationships involved, the scope of the loss, and the individual needs of those who are grieving. I find sometimes that others may be critical of someone else going through grief because they are not going through it in the same way as they are. A family member may judge another who lacks emotion, while they may in turn may be judged for being too emotional.
When President George W. Bush visited the site of the collapsed WTC Towers after 9/11, he was not criticised for being “too soon”, and Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh followed about the same time period. Perhaps a critical difference was the scope of the loss. The Pittsburgh synagogue attack was seen as an attack on a specific population, as well as an attack on our city’s civic pride. The 9/11 attack was seen as an attack on the country itself. The Pittsburgh attack felt more local, while 9/11 was national in scope – although locals felt the pain and shock the most. There are few times where we as a nation have had to grieve and mourn collectively, and therefore it’s hard to know how to do that.
Pittsburgh is still processing what has happened and will continue to do so for some time. The synagogue requires extensive repairs before it is suitable for worship. The gunman is in custody but remains within the bounds of our city and has pled not guilty to 44 counts which could draw the death penalty if he is convicted. This means that the pain of those affected will likely be drawn out by trials and retrials. The spectre of antisemitism and white supremacy will linger far after the trials have ended.
When I first wanted to write about these events I wanted to try and find some lesson to pass along, some wisdom to share, or some point to make. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find any wisdom to share. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be sufficient. And that’s part of grief as well.