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Worshippers head into Beth Shalom Synagogue for Shabbat services Saturday morning in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh.Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
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The First Shabbat After Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh

Our last dispatch from a city that is still in shock

Armin Rosen
November 05, 2018
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Worshippers head into Beth Shalom Synagogue for Shabbat services Saturday morning in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh.Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Ninety-seven-year-old Rose Malinger’s funeral at Rodef Shalom ended at around 2 p.m. on Friday. Less than four hours later came a Shabbat unlike any other and also like every other. The candle-lighting and havdalah times and Torah readings were unaltered by the week’s horrifying events because no human act can stop Shabbat’s arrival and departure.

After a week of trauma and anguish came the certainty of a cosmically mandated interlude in the tragedy, or at least a pause in its dreadful and almost unendurable momentum. There would be dinners and davening and seudat slishit. As one rabbi at Beth Shalom emphasized at the beginning of the services held in the Squirrel Hill mega-shul’s stained-glass-enclosed sanctuary on Saturday morning, the assembled were there to celebrate Shabbat. As another rabbi had told a packed room of worshippers between Kabbalat Shabbat and maariv the night before, weekdays were for doing, but Shabbat was for being. What does it mean to be? the rabbi asked.

Unable to sleep the night after the massacre, a third rabbi told a group of congregants that she looked to the upcoming parsha and felt the first glimmers of hope and comfort shining from its first two words: Chayei Sarah. Sarah lived.

Stories bounded around Shabbat tables and synagogue lobbies. There were the 40 out-of-town yeshiva students who showed up at one of the shiva minyans; the man who traveled across the country to lay a single flower at the Tree of Life and then immediately flew home; the strangeness of seeing Murray Avenue Kosher described in The New York Times; the change in ownership over at Pinsker’s Judaica, which would have been huge news during a normal week but now felt like a footnote of almost darkly comic irrelevance. People remembered how different the sirens sounded from typical police cars or ambulances because there had been so many of them rocketing so quickly down Murray Avenue. People swapped funeral stories. They talked about their abortive work weeks and how their children were handling a terrifying communal tragedy.

On Shabbat morning most of the over 1,000 seats at Beth Shalom were taken by the middle of psueke d’zimra. The optimism of the Jews, one of the attendees at Joyce Feinberg’s funeral had quipped to me a few days earlier, noting how close together the pews are. With all three of the congregations that use the Tree of Life building holding a combined service, nearly every seat was full with entire families, complete with children in their 20s and 30s, and middle-aged adults paired with older congregants who were most likely their parents. There were people who had returned to Pittsburgh for the first Shabbat after the shooting. “I said I wouldn’t know how I felt until I came back,” one of them later told me, “and now I don’t think I’ll know how I feel until I leave again.”

At 9:52 a.m., exactly one week after Rabbi Jeffrey Myers placed the first 911 call informing the police of an active shooter in his synagogue, the assembled rose for one minute and 11 seconds of wrenching silence. Everything that came after had both the same meaning and an entirely different meaning, shaped by the largest mass murder of Jews on American soil.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light declared the upcoming start of Kislev, Torah in hand: A rabbi whose congregants were murdered in their shul was announcing another month’s worth of the Jewish future. The first aliyah went to the survivors of the attack; the third went to past presidents of New Light, three of whom had been killed a week prior. A member of Beth Shalom’s lay leadership provided snippets of commentary between the aliyot: Here’s Abraham remarrying Hagar, a reminder that even bitter opposites can be reconciled. Here’s Isaac finding joy in a wedding after the death of his mother, a hint of the simchot to come as well as God’s permission to enjoy them. Here’s a celebration of Ishmael, a righteous gentile, a moment in which the Torah recognizes the good that exists in all of the world’s peoples.

Rabbi Myers delivered the d’var Torah. He noted that Chayei Sarah is a parsha filled with acts of compassion and love. The word “hate” does not appear in the portion, he said. The rabbi then spent most of the rest of the sermon defending his meeting with Donald Trump, only mentioning the president’s name two or three times at most despite referring to his office repeatedly.

Myers said he sang ma’ale rachamim—the prayer for the dead, recited at every funeral this week—inside of the Tree of Life, where he told the president that “hateful words lead to hateful acts.” He described his experience of the massacre to the president, who Myers said he believed he had to meet out of courtesy and respect for the office and because he thought that shunning the president would have itself been an unhealthily divisive act. “If our community is going to heal we have to walk the path of good,” he said in closing.

There was little attempted summing up of the week’s events and what they could mean, maybe because Myers doesn’t know what they mean. Neither does anyone else. I have heard Myers sing ma’ale rachamim five times this week, and his voice sounded progressively more raw each time, as if he’d accessed ever-more-shattering layers of anguish with every repetition.

The service concluded with a brief speech from former Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, the current head of the Jewish Agency. What he had seen this Shabbat, Herzog said, proved that this Jewish community wouldn’t slink away in fear after the horrors of the previous week. Last, before kiddush and motzi was a singing of “Hatikva,” which also took on a meaning particular to this place and moment in time. The closing words of the song seemed to refer to attaining the heavenly Jerusalem, an ideal that seemed both consoling and disquieting.

“There is no honor in agreeing,” Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, the leader of the Orthodox Sha’re Torah congregation who has coordinated much of the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha’s response to the massacre told me on Thursday. “You ever walk into a bais medrash and people are learning? The Talmud describes it as a war—the war of Torah. But it’s not personal. It’s to make each other better,” he explained. “There are many times the Talmud says, ‘you know what, I don’t know. I just don’t know.’”

Disagreements about how to respond to the massacre are inevitable. And while Wasserman suggested that a lack of debate would be a more ominous development than the alternative, one of his biggest concerns in the months ahead is intracommunal division. “Politics and partisanship is an insidious disease that can destroy anything,” he said, “even the beautiful Pittsburgh community. I hope it doesn’t happen, but that’s my fear.”

The energetic Wasserman is a daily Daf Yomi student—the rabbi had dutifully studied that day’s page at 6 a.m. each morning even during a week in which he had met frequently with the FBI, attended numerous funerals and shivas. What had the Daf Yomi been about on the day of the shooting? I asked. “Interestingly enough, the conversations in this section are about offerings to God,” he replied. Korban, or sacrifice, is one of the many words in the Jewish lexicon for martyr, Wasserman explained. He recalled that last Shabbat, during the hour after the murders and with his shul still on lockdown, his congregants heard the reading of parshat Vayera, which includes the sacrifice of Isaac.

“Abraham was told that through Isaac you will see a future—and yet God told him, sacrifice him. How does that work?” Wasserman asked. “The answer is Jewish history and destiny doesn’t make sense, because if it did, we wouldn’t be here.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.