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The Pittsburgh Principles

Wondering what to do in the aftermath of the horrendous attack on the Tree of Life synagogue? Just look to the city of steel.

Liel Leibovitz
October 30, 2018
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners gather outside Rodef Shalom Congregation on Oct. 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners gather outside Rodef Shalom Congregation on Oct. 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The idea that Jews may, at any time and in any place, be slaughtered simply for being Jews is both the historical backdrop for and the daily reality of my homeland, Israel. Having served in the IDF, I’ve seen this violence and its aftermath up close. I’m no stranger to the terrifying sight of an ordinary place—a bus, a mall, a shul—sanctified by blood. But as I was driving down to Pittsburgh this weekend, I was struck by the uneasy feeling that I had no idea how to process what was going on.

This sort of attack, after all, had never happened here, on American soil. And American Jews, unlike their Israeli brothers and sisters, have no tried and perfected routine of rage and grief on which to lean when the worst occurs. Like so many of us, I imagine, I felt numb.

But Pittsburgh did not. Each person, each storefront, each conversation resonated with resilience and grace. On the front window of the Cold Stone Creamery, someone hung a small makeshift Star of David, drawn on a plain piece of paper. On the stage at the city’s memorial vigil Sunday night, an imam shared the news that the Muslim community had raised more than $70,000 for their Jewish neighbors. Everywhere my Tablet colleagues and I went, people offered to feed us, put us up, or introduce us to friends who may have stories of their own to share.

It will take me days, maybe weeks, to process all that I’ve seen in this amazing city. But for now, I’d like to offer three answers Pittsburgh had offered to the question I and so many others asked it this weekend, the difficult question of how to proceed in the face of this tragedy.

First, do not divide—multiply. That, we heard from one Pittsburgher after another, was the arithmetic of life in the city. Rather than belong to one shul and refuse to set foot in any other, people here take out multiple memberships, going to one house of worship to be with some friends, say, to another to hear a wise rabbi speak, and to a third to enjoy some beautiful liturgy. On Shabbat Teshuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one soft-spoken Orthodox immigrant who settled in Pittsburgh after fleeing the anti-Semitic climate of Paris told us, some synagogues across town unite, nominating one rabbi to address their shared congregations. None of this is to say that important distinctions—theological, political, and emotional—aren’t observed or respected; they are. But they are never allowed to grow so ravenous or so wild as to devour the community they ultimately serve, a community that insists on always remaining larger than the sum of its parts.

Which leads me to the second Pittsburgh Principle: Know your place. Unlike the craven cohorts on Twitter, who mock and scold and savage without having to look another human being in the eye or step into a room with folks who may think or feel differently, the people we met in Pittsburgh seemed to understand, far better than those of us who dwell in hard and hurried cities like New York or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., that there is no substitute for humans congregating together in shared spaces they all work hard to nurture and sustain. The hundreds who rushed to the JCC on Saturday afternoon didn’t do it merely for the comfort of each other’s company. They did it because they understood that the price you pay for a real community is showing up when it matters, even if the comforts of home might’ve been more appealing.

In showing up, Pittsburghers also affirmed the Third Principle, the one affirming Lincoln’s Logic. As thousands gathered Sunday afternoon at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial to honor the 11 souls that were murdered a day earlier, they were looking up at 272 words, written in large golden letters on the wall above them. Offered by the 16th president on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, the address famously ends with the proposition that a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. It’s not just a platitude: Such a government means that the people ought to live up to their end of the bargain. Too often, we don’t. We hug our kids and binge on our shows and fret about our jobs and expect others in a position of power—from elected officials to community leaders—to keep us physically safe and spiritually satiated. They know better in Pittsburgh. The leaders were all there, reporting to duty, but so many of the initiatives we saw, from a student-led gathering to impromptu get-togethers in private homes, were organized by the people and for the people.

There’s a lot else to say about the attack on the Tree of Life, scores more difficult conversations awaiting calmer hearts and cooler minds. But if you’re looking for a little bit of solace, and if you’re wondering where to go from here, just look to Pittsburgh and follow its lead.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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