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It Happened Here

A vigil for 11 Jews massacred by an anti-Semitic killer in Pittsburgh marks a horrifying occasion, but hardly brings closure

Armin Rosen
October 29, 2018
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, right, from the Tree of Life synagogue, hugs other rabbis who were leading services at the synagogue when it was attacked, during a vigil for the Pittsburgh massacre.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, right, from the Tree of Life synagogue, hugs other rabbis who were leading services at the synagogue when it was attacked, during a vigil for the Pittsburgh massacre.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

“I’m a survivor. I saw my synagogue burned on Kristallnacht in 1938,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier told me as we crowded our way into the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh alongside over 2,500 other people for this evening’s memorial vigil for the 11 Jews who were slaughtered at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday. “I never thought it would happen here.” Schneier had “just visited at the hospital one of the victims whose mother was killed next to her in synagogue. I met a police officer who went face to face with the beast.”

The vigil was a first step beyond the pain and confusion, and by the time it started at 5 p.m., the day after the largest mass killing of Jews in American history, there were more people outside of the neoclassical temple than within. There was nothing to say, and yet the nothing had to be said anyway. The mind looped back on the unthinkable, and to the impossibility of conveying what any of it could possibly mean.

Red, white and blue bunting dotted the balcony of the hall, which was completed in the early 20th century to honor veterans of the Civil War. The Gettysburg Address is painted in its entirety, in large, gold block letters above the stage. As they delivered their remarks, the speakers stood beneath the all-time greatest example of salvaging some higher purpose out of American self-destruction.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, spoke first. “The murderer’s bullet does not stop to ask, are you Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox; left or right,” he said. “From Sderot in Israel to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, the hand that fires missiles is the hand that fires bullets at worshippers.” (Both Bennett and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who spoke in a video message, referred to the shooting as a “terror attack.”)

No representative of the Trump administration, which represents the current political leadership of the United States of America, spoke at the event. Jason Greenblatt, a top White House adviser on the Middle East peace process and perhaps the highest-profile Trump-connected official in attendance, would not talk to Tablet on-record. The president went entirely unmentioned over the course of the vigil but Bennett, the Israeli government’s official representative to the Diaspora, received a warm applause. It was clear that the Pittsburgh Jewish community both wanted and welcomed an official presence from the world’s only majority-Jewish state.

A synagogue massacre is also the sort of trauma with which Israelis are intimately familiar by now, on a level that is often jarring in its specifics. “My staff wanted to take me to the hotel but I said no way,” Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, told Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz after the vigil, recalling his arrival in Pittsburgh late the night before. “I went directly to Tree of Life. The bodies were still there. It reminded me of a similar situation I experienced when the Fogel family was massacred in Israel and I arrived when the bodies were still lying in their home. The circumstances are different but ultimately my thought was that Jew hatred is murderous there and murderous here, and we sometimes have the same tragic destiny. But I hope we will also share the sense of resilience that we developed in Israel.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, “We’re here to mourn that we live in a society where something like this could even exist.” His promise that “we will drive anti-Semites back to their basements and their computers” received one of the first standing ovations of the night.

Every member of the clergy in the audience—over 100 ministers, rabbis, Catholic and Orthodox priests, imams, and Sikh granthis—was invited onstage to lead the assembled in “God Bless America.” A number of non-Jewish clergy spoke. Wasim Mohammed, a leader at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, recalled a hadith in which Mohammed rises to honor a passing Jewish funeral procession. His companions are startled: Didn’t the prophet realize this was a non-Muslim he was saluting? The imam continued: “A couple words were all [the prophet] needed to explain how ridiculous that was: ‘Was he not a soul?’”

Jonathan Perlman, the rabbi at New Light, one of the three communities that share the Tree of Life building, spoke through tears: “These three men, they cannot be replaced,” he said of his congregants murdered at prayer the day before. “But we will not be broken. We will not be ruined by this event.” He closed his speech with a quote from the Gettysburg Address, which— possibly not accidentally—is about Americans killed by other Americans in a nightmarish civil conflict: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Cheryl Klein, the rabbi at Congregation Dor Hadash, remembered her murdered congregant Jerry Rabinowitz, a doctor who “defined what it meant to be a mensch. He died on his way to give help to others.”

Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi at Tree of Life, which lost seven members in the attack, read from Psalm 23, which begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … Well God, I want! I want what I want you can’t give me. You can’t return these 11 beautiful souls.” When the vigil ended the three rabbis huddled in a close embrace onstage, in tears.

The program concluded with musicians from the Pittsburgh Philharmonic playing “Ariyah,” a work by the Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. It is a disquietingly meandering string piece that murmurs without a clear destination. When the music begins to seem hopeful, it suddenly reins itself back from any grand resolution. It’s noncathartic, advancing and retreating; minor and major oscillate in an unnervingly perfect balance and the work wanders through each emotional register without achieving an endpoint.

Like the vigil itself, the music offered comfort without closure. It was the final thing people heard before heading back out into the rain and the darkness outside.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.