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The dead have been accounted for, but their blood has not.
Under Jewish law, every remnant of human material contains the life-force of a person—and, as such, is sanctified. At the Tree of Life synagogue, the bodies of the 11 Jews murdered on Saturday morning have all been removed, first to be examined as part of the criminal investigation, and now to be buried. But their blood cannot be forgotten, simply scrubbed away and disposed of. It must be honored, collected, and buried.
On Tuesday morning, eight members of the local Pittsburgh chevra kadisha, the Jewish burial society, prepared to enter the building and begin this final task of collecting the blood. There were three rabbis, two medics, a painter, and a doctor. They are all local, all from Squirrel Hill, all veteran members of the chevra kadisha—the most junior one among them has been a volunteer for over five years. All of these men—and they were all men, though other female volunteers will join in the coming weeks as well—are professionals with day jobs who have taken off from work to be here, as a sacred obligation to their community. Many of them have full gray beards. One is in his 20s. Their work inside the synagogue is physically laborious, involving scrubbing and bending and kneeling for many hours. They feel honored to serve the dead in this way.
Most of the men here have been doing this work for 15 or 20 years, and are familiar with the process of scraping blood and collecting remains—though never at a crime scene like this.
They are not the only Jewish burial society in town, but as Orthodox Jews they knew the victims of this synagogue less personally than the other Pittsburgh chevra kadisha, and so offered to take on the task for now. Other volunteer burial societies—including Chesed Shel Emet, which specializes in graphic tragedies—came in from elsewhere, but were sent back home: Pittsburgh Jews are prepared to bury their own dead.
The men are soft-spoken, subdued, moved by the respect for privacy that categorizes Jewish burial societies across the world. One older man explained to me that when he is working with a dead body, he can feel the soul still hovering, watching as he does his work. He sees it as his job, he told me, to ease its journey on to the next world.
Throughout Jewish history, the blood of the Jewish martyr has served as an active witness against the horror of the crime they endured. In accordance with historical law, when someone is murdered for being Jewish—for dying al kiddush hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name—there is the tradition to bury the individual in the clothing in which they were murdered. The individual is not washed or dressed in the typical shrouds, or tachrichim, of the Jewish dead; their own blood is understood to recommend them far more than any purification ritual ever could. They need no further purification; they have been made holy in their death, and their clothing itself engenders God’s mercy, and demand God’s justice on earth. The blood is supposed to outrage those who witness it, and stir the Jewish people from any complacency to such an act.
Here in Pittsburgh, where the dead are also part of a modern crime scene, many of the victims’ bodies had undergone autopsies and other preparations that precluded the possibility of being buried in the shrouds of their martyrdom. But not all. As one of the members of the burial society explained about the situation here, “if the bodies are being buried in their original condition, then there is no taharah,” the word for preparation for burial. “They are buried in the clothes in which they died,” because those are their holiest shrouds; but for those bodies which had to be examined, and therefore undressed, there will be a regular taharah and preparation, if the family desires it, and carried out by either of the burial societies. Their clothing, with their blood, is to be included in the grave.
On Saturday afternoon, after he heard about the shooting, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, rabbi of the local Shaare Torah synagogue and one of the heads of the chevra kadisha, and his colleague Rabbi Elisar Admon, a local rabbi who moved to Pittsburgh from Israel and is involved in ZAKA, the Israeli organization founded to identify and collect human remains in the aftermath of bombings, walked over to Tree of Life and gave their names to the security forces there, letting them know they would want to come back and oversee the process of caring for the dead. That Saturday night, the two men met with Brad Orsini, a former FBI agent and local community security officer, and spoke with Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, the rabbi of Tree of Life, who gave them his blessing to enter the synagogue and begin their work.
At about 10 p.m., the FBI agreed to allow Orsini, Rabbi Wasserman, Rabbi Admon, and another security officer to walk through the building, without touching anything. They were there only to get a sense of the scope of the work that would be ahead. A large contingent of the local chevre kadisha—men, women, young and old—stood outside in the rain until almost 1 a.m., ready to volunteer their services if needed. No one else was allowed to enter that night.
The eight men worked until 4:35 p.m. on Tuesday, completing their work on the areas that had been made available to them. At this point the secret service, coordinating the visit of President Donald Trump to the site, had them remain in the basement of the building until about 6 p.m. The FBI agents on the scene were also on lockdown, and the two groups sat together in the basement. “This was the first time they have ever let civilians inside the building,” said one member of the chevra kadisha, “and they had never seen anything like it before, so they were pretty curious about our work.” In turn, the chevra kadisha asked them about FBI work, and, of course, which FBI television shows were the most accurate. “They said only The Wire was even remotely accurate,” this member added. He doesn’t know when the FBI will open up access to the next two areas of the building and ask him to return to complete the work. The men are also busy this week preparing the bodies for funerals and attending to details of the burials, and they remain on call.
The bodies themselves were removed on Sunday, starting around 3 a.m. Rabbis Wasserman and Admon had returned about two hours earlier, to sit with the bodies, which had all been moved to a staging area within the building, and then to help assist with the transfer of the bodies to the vehicle that would take them to the medical examiner’s office, a task done with the help of two other members of the chevra kadisha. By this point, the community had organized a rotation of shomrim, those who guard the body before burial and ensure the dead is never alone, to sit in the medical examiner’s office. Naomi Balaban, who coordinates the chevra kadisha, sent out a Google doc with one-hour time slots to community email lists, and over 40 volunteers answered the call to sit and guard the bodies. The dead were never alone.
At that point, one task remained: What remained of each victim was to be collected from the building.
Along with the FBI presence, which accompanied them throughout their work but did not participate in it, the chevra kadisha scrubbed under sinks, behind counters, over countertops, using blacklights and hydrogen peroxide to search for every speck of blood. They brought scrubs and wipes and brushes and sprays and biohazard bags. They wore bodysuits and gloves and headlamps.
The building has been described as a scene of otherworldly carnage. According to officials and others who’ve been inside, there is blood in multiple areas, on multiple surfaces, and bullet holes riddling multiple areas, including some of the holiest artifacts of Jewish life. Because it is important in Jewish law to keep the blood of each person distinct—so that it can be matched and buried with the particular body that housed it for so many years—these men had to identify each area in the synagogue with the specific person killed there, in order to collect the material meticulously and, in consultation with the family, reunite the remains with the body.
This is what is left for the Jewish community to gather.
The blood and human elements were then bagged, along with all of the materials used to collect them—the gloves and the brushes and the wipes. Throughout the course of this week, each bag will be buried in or alongside the coffin. Material that cannot be identified with a specific individual will to be put into a communal grave, laid to rest with all the dignity that accompanies the burial of an individual with a name and identity.
‘The hardest part of what we do is that we can’t tell people what we’ve seen and experienced here. I wish people could know and see what had happened here.’
“When asked about my reaction, what I say is I haven’t had it yet. I just haven’t had time,” said Rabbi Wasserman on Monday morning. “I can tell you: I don’t know if the word carnage is good enough. It’s terrible.” And here he paused, his voice cracking. “Just terrible.”
Another member of the chevra kadisha told me he is “emotionally dead” right now, steeling himself for this work. “I’ll deal with this later, not now,” he explained of his own reactions to the events. Another member spoke to me after his afternoon prayers. “It hit me when I walked over the threshold of the building this morning. This is it, this is where these people were.” A longtime paramedic and volunteer firefighter, he struggled to find the words for the loss and the tragedy.
Unlike in Israel, where the 2014 stabbing at a synagogue in Har Nof and the 2008 attack at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva were each reported in news outlets alongside pictures of blood-stained prayer books and blood-soaked steps and bloodied prayer shawls, there has been no visual horror to add to our emotional horror. We cannot see their blood, as everyone involved is under strict orders by the FBI to say and show nothing of the scene inside. “The hardest part of what we do is that we can’t tell people what we’ve seen and experienced here,” one chevra kadisha member said to me. “I wish people could know and see what had happened here.”
We now live in an America that has 11 new Jewish martyrs, men and women murdered for being Jews. Most of us are strangers to this experience, a reality so foreign to the history of Jews in this country. But we also live inside a Jewish history that for thousands of years accepted the Jewish martyr as fact, and which accordingly developed an entire subset of laws to address the burial of those murdered because of who they were.
For millennia, Jews have been collecting and burying the blood of our martyrs. This week, the Jews of Pittsburgh have joined that history.
To read more Tablet coverage of the Pittsburgh massacre, click here.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.