Pittsburgh: When in doubt, love more

I was woken up at 8 a.m. by my father, on Shabbat, at the hotel we were staying at in Los Angeles. We were going to be heading to synagogue shortly to celebrate our aufruf (wedding honor at Shabbat morning services) with my wife-to-be. I stood in the room, in shock at the news in Pittsburgh. I felt guilty to be so far away from my community. Though it was not my congregation, all of the Jews of Pittsburgh stand as one. It was one of the first things I learned upon moving to Pittsburgh.

My first week, in 2016, was the week of Shavuot, which is celebrated by all night learning. Nowhere else in the world do I know of a place where all of the different Jewish communities learn together.

The rest of the morning was a daze, we saw the news in the lobby, we received many hugs from my friends and family at the synagogue in the morning, and listened to my dear friend, the rabbi of that congregation, share words of wisdom for our upcoming nuptials the next day. We shared a meal with that congregation in excited anticipation of our wedding the next day.

I struggled over the course of the day to do the impossible: to joyously celebrate and get excited about my wedding while also grieve with my community and my home. We did as best as anyone can while receiving hundreds of messages and emails of well-wishing and the hope that we would be able to hold onto the Simcha, the happiness of our day.

I shared, that Saturday evening, this post with a simple message from one of my lifelong teachers:

When in doubt, love more.

That is how we spent Sunday, our wedding day. We disconnected from the world, reveling in our love and the world we wished could be for everyone. My teacher and one of our officiants, the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, shared an important teaching at the beginning of our ceremony that helped us:

The Sages taught: One reroutes the funeral procession for the burial of a corpse to yield before the wedding procession of a bride. (Ketubot 17a)

Rabbi Peretz shared this Torah that we were to focus on the living and the celebration of life and that we would have time to mourn and grieve afterward. Her wisdom made all of the difference.

Over the following few days, I felt pulled back and forth between celebrating with my new wife and managing my grief at what was happening in my home in Pittsburgh. We finally made it to Tuesday and spent that day getting mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to arrive home and get to work supporting our community on Wednesday morning.

And we hit the ground running. On Wednesday, when we had hundreds upon hundreds of people for one of the funerals of the murdered martyrs, I was there to greet my people as they left the synagogue. There are no words to express the complexity of emotions to receive hugs, wished mazel tovs, and to be filled with tears.

From Wednesday through Shabbat’s beginning on Friday, there was no time for breaks. It was hour by hour triage of providing support, finding support for others, and trying our best to stay grounded amongst the chaos.

My incredibly wise wife’s mantra, for our wedding weekend, was the recognition that of joy and sorrow are bound together. That our first day back put that to the test.

The next few days were manic in trying to take care of my congregation, of over six hundred families, supporting everyone who we could, and preparing for Shabbat.

But we made it through the week. We did it because everyone stepped up and did their best.

On Friday night, we had hundreds of people filling our halls for Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim, our own regular Friday night services and the services of New Light and Dor Hadash congregations. This brings us to Saturday. This is one of the most incredible days I have ever experienced in my life.

At 9 am in the morning, when our services start at 9:30am, our sanctuary was filled with hundreds of people. Over the course of the following hour, nearly every seat was filled in the 1300+ seat room.

Members of each congregation led the services, spoke, and shared words of consolation and meaning. It is a rare occurrence, to say the least, for four congregations to do services together and rarer still to do so in a way that was so filled with kavod (honor), rachmanut (compassion), and hodaya (gratitude).

I rarely speak at services, that role is taken by our senior rabbi, Rabbi Seth Adelson. Since he was out of town, he asked me to share his words. You can find those here.

I felt moved to speak as well and this is what I said. You can also watch it on the video attached to this post or here.

I’d like to share a few words and a piece of Torah. I received this from my teacher, Rabbi Bradley Artson.

In Colorado, there is a forest. It spans for miles and miles, on hills, mountains, and valleys. These trees are Aspen trees. When the scientists looked beneath the earth, they discovered. This wasn’t a forest. What they discovered was that these Aspen trees shared a root system, they were in fact, a single organism. This was a single tree.

We are this forest. It might appear as though we are separate, but we are not. It might seem like your tree goes to this school and my tree goes to that school, your tree goes to this synagogue, my tree goes to another, your tree has one skin color, mine another, your tree has one gender, mine has another.

But this is not true, because our roots are one. Our roots are connected.

Our roots are made of steel. 

Steel doesn’t break, it remains strong.

In our liturgy, we spoke of the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life, and we sang:

Etz hayyim hee, l’mahazikim ba

It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. This word, to hold fast, or to grasp, comes from the root, HZK, meaning strong. Our roots are strong and they are strong because we hold on to one another. we are strong because we help each other, we support one another.

Strength is not measured in stoicism, but also in vulnerability. Strength is being who you are and being there for each other.

We will get through this. We will get through it together. #RootsofSteel

That morning was followed by a sheva berachot hosted by the Beth Shalom community for me and my wife. We have never felt so honored and held by our community. We live, as do we all, in the recognition that our lives are in balance, pushing and pulling on two powerful emotions of grief and sorrow.

So why do I tell you all of this? Why do I tell you this story?
There are so many reasons.

I want you, dear reader, to remember, that life will go on.

That we will continue to work hard, hopefully, harder than we did before, to make this world better.
That no matter what happens, we have an obligation to one another.
That we can live in a place of joy and sorrow at the same time.
That it is ok to cry and to grieve in whatever way you need to.
That it is important to take care of yourself.
That kindness and hope are more powerful than any type of hate. 
That Jews of all stripes stood together.
That Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill were there for each other.
That the roots of this city are made of steel.
That stories of goodness are gifts.

And that, when in doubt, love more.

About the Author
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz lives in Pittsburgh and serves as the Director Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom. There he seeks to explore how, through the lens of Torah, we can inspire justice, love of all people, and build healthy and meaningful relationships with each other and God. Judaism and Torah have the power to make us better human beings when we bring all ourselves to engage with tough questions and the world around us. He also runs the blog, The Rabbi's Manual, where he strives to help other rabbis become better rabbis, teachers, and leaders.
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