Dreaming of Brighter Days

Vigil for victims of the terror attack at the Tree of Life synagogue. (Hannah Geller)

I am not a morning person.

One year ago I sluggishly opened my eyes in my dark Penn State dorm room. Said “Modeh Ani.” Washed my face. It felt like any other day. Until I opened my laptop.

Uncontrolled tears splashed onto the keyboard. Disbelief and horror flooded my body. I had just learned that 11 innocent souls were taken in a domestic terror attack only two hours away from me.

The sobbing did not stop. Shock hit me so hard that I forgot who I knew in Pittsburgh. Oh no. My best friend.

My fingers were shaking as they typed her name on my phone. Call. Redial. Redial. She wasn’t picking up. I was hyperventilating. Please G-d, let her be okay. Please G-d, let her not have gone to synagogue this morning. At the time I was on-and-off keeping Shabbat. Clearly that was an off week. I promise if you keep her safe then I won’t use electronics again on Shabbat. Meanwhile my phone was buzzing. “Did you hear the news?” “Are you OK?” Messages from all over the US and Israel came through. I couldn’t respond.

Facebook finally alerted me that certain friends had marked themselves as safe. My best friend was one of them. “Thank G-d you are OK,” I texted her. She told me that she lives five minutes away and woke up to ambulances. I tried to respond, but couldn’t see clearly enough through the tears. I powered off my phone and laptop. G-d was good on His side of the deal, now it was my turn.

That was a day I will never forget. Eleven of my brothers and sisters who woke up early to make it to synagogue never left the building. They never had the chance to say “I love you” one last time. Their dinner tables were left with an empty chair. Only incomplete, shattered lives remained.

Vigil at Penn State. Flags at half mast. (Hannah Geller)

We had a vigil at Penn State a couple days later. Jewish students from Pittsburgh went in front of the crowd to say the mourner’s kaddish. We were all mourners in that moment: some of us mourned because we knew the victims, and everyone mourned because our hearts were broken.

For the next two weeks, I walked around like a numb version of myself, bereft of emotions, unable to focus. I recall feeling as if I could burst out in tears at any moment — during class, eating dinner, doing homework. Fear had made me fragile. Hate had broken me. And it’s hard for broken people to hold up other broken people. Yet, we still tried. My friends confided in me that they weren’t sleeping. Some expressed that they would never return to synagogue again. Paranoia convinced them to hide their Jewish jewelry.

Others, however, reacted in a different way. They turned darkness into light. Chabad stood on the streets to hand out Shabbat candles. AJC’s #ShowUpForShabbat brought frequent and irregular synagogue goers, as well as non-Jewish allies, together to express solidarity. Both approaches helped me overcome that toxic fear that had once engulfed me.

Candles at the vigil held at Penn State. (Hannah Geller)

In one day, my reality as an American Jew changed dramatically. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days later, I cannot accurately express the repercussions I have witnessed. Police officers outside Shabbat every week. Strategically sitting on the side of the synagogue that a gunman would shoot at later, theoretically providing a few seconds to react in an emergency. Identifying all exit doors in every public space. Hearing about my rebbetzin’s attending active shooter training. Understanding that many Jews are now carrying concealed weapons to services out of self-defense.

This is not the reality I wish to live in, yet it is the world we have been given. So in the meantime I’ll dream of brighter days. I’ll try harder to smile at strangers. I’ll choose courage in the face of fear. And maybe one day, when I sluggishly open my eyes, the light will be stronger than the darkness.

About the Author
Hannah Geller lives in Philadelphia and leads video strategy for a global hasbara organization. She is the Director of Photography for Emmy-Nominated "Quiet Sundays,” is editing a documentary set in Poland, and aspires to be a Kosher foodie influencer. Views are hers.
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