On Saturday night, my family danced the end of Shabbat away with song. It had been a full Shabbat: celebrating an upcoming marriage, a baby just birthed, welcoming guests, Jews and non-Jews who have never experienced the Jewish day of rest, around our table. Isolated from the outside world, our phones remained off. A break from the news cycle, a moment to breathe.
When I turned on my phone, I was met with a fluttering of texts and calls. “Rabbi, are you going to Pittsburgh?” “What do we do now?” “Rabbi, is there a vigil happening?”
As a Jew, a grandchild of Holocaust refugees, a rabbi, an American, my heart was in Pittsburgh and so it wouldn’t be long till my body caught up. So, on early Sunday morning I kissed my kids goodbye as I drove to the Tree of Life synagogue. “For it is a tree of life for those who cling to it,” the Bible declares. Confronted with such tragedy we are compelled to ask the most fundamental questions: How did this happen? Why? What do we do now?
For the last of these questions we can turn to Fred Rogers, the beloved educator and resident of Squirrel Hill whose had this advice in moments of tragedy: “Always look for the helpers.” There are of course, the first responders, police and EMTs, and other people who rushed towards danger and risked their lives in the service of others. But the neighborhood of civility extended beyond that moment of horror and into the days thereafter.
There was Lee, a Black man in his 60s who has called Pittsburgh home for over 40 years. When he heard of Saturday’s attack, he was quick to action and set up shop right across the street from the synagogue where the massacre took place. His sign spoke for itself: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” There he stood serving hot coffee on an especially frigid day. I asked Lee, “Is this your neighborhood?” “No, rabbi,” Lee replied, “This is my house. An attack on the Jewish community is an attack on all our homes.”
There was Pastor Jayne, a Lutheran minister who serves at a nearby college about 80 miles away from the city. Sunday was Reformation Sunday for Lutherans and she felt like this hallowed site was where she needed to be on this sacred day in her calendar. The pastor had just taught a class about Kristallnacht to her students. How poignant that a Torah scroll rescued from the ashes of the Holocaust from Czechoslovakia found its home in this congregation Tree of Life. Never again is always, we reminded each other, as passersby and neighbors from across the city lay flowers and letters by the police tape blocking the entrance to the synagogue.
There was Jeremy Pappas, regional director of the Cleveland Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League. Jeremy was about to speak to CNN but shared this story with me before returning to the press. A woman was walking by the synagogue in Squirrel Hill earlier that Sunday with her young son who asked her, “Mommy, did those people really get killed just because they were in shul?” The woman didn’t answer and together Jeremy and I talked about how challenging it is to tell of these events to our children and answer the unanswerable questions these horrific events evoke.
I carried these stories with me as I made way to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Amid the hustle of finding seats, there was Sheila Greene, a proud member of the Baptist church which performed at the community-wide vigil. “How you doing?” Sheila asked me. “I’m hanging in there,” I answered. “No,” Sheila said, “how you really doing?” Sheila, who was carrying an oxygen tank along with her walker, put it down and pulled me close. “We in this together,” she said.
There was Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish college association. He came here today to grieve with students of the city. These are but a few of the unseen helpers who show up in the wake of tragedy to remind America of who we might be.
At the vigil, the grand hall which seats 2,500 people quickly filled with an overflow of an additional 1,000 people who stood outside listening to loudspeakers and filled the aisles of the auditorium. What a profound declaration that night was of the most inspiring parts of the American family. What was displayed was a radically different picture of America than we might experience through the echo chambers of our social media channels.
Politicians, pastors, and community leaders spoke. Philanthropists, presidential advisers, and senators were present but they sat silently and listened. A Baptist choir sang. Wasi Mohamed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, spoke and shared how his community had raised upwards of $70,000 to benefit the synagogue community. He offered to stand guard in front of the synagogue imploring the Jewish community: tell us what we can do for you. Bill Peduto, the Pittsburgh Mayor described his city as one of refuge to all who seek to enter peacefully. And through tears, the rabbis of the various congregations all housed at the synagogue site spoke and described their murdered community members lovingly. The evening closed with musicians from the city’s philharmonic performing a song from the Holocaust.
The America I witnessed that night was a vision of the beloved community, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so often preached about. That America was in full display: big-hearted, tolerant of difference, passionate and compassionate.
I drove home late Sunday night to return to my community and the work that awaited me: service projects, classes in addition to baby namings and weddings. And now memorial service vigils. And now what? Anti-semitism is as ancient as the Amalekites of the Bible. Like racism, xenophobia, homophobia this cancer had been gaining ground since the 2016 election, staining our American flag. Undoubtedly, we shall persevere. And yet, though I know the Jewish calendar is still a few months shy from Passover, I can’t help but wonder: what will make this mass shooting different than all other mass shootings? Of course, the people affected are unique; each world a precious soul. But what might actually change? Will our politicians learn from the helpers? Will we learn to sit with the sufferers’ grief just a tiny bit longer? What will the end of next week’s Sabbath bring?
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel and spiritual leader of its Manhattan site.