Raindrops drummed on the roof this past Shabbat morning when I woke up at my friend’s grandparents’ house in Springfield, NJ. I made my way downstairs and into the kitchen, announcing to my friend, who was already at the table, “Still only half awake. Don’t wanna talk yet.”
She obligingly got me a mug and coffee, while I slowly decided what to eat for breakfast.
It was early, albeit later than either of us wakes up during the week. I relished the slow morning, which I don’t get anymore because I need to get to work. Eventually, it was time to get dressed for shul. The rain was lighter by then. Besides, Gram and Gramps live only a short walk from their shul. What reason could there be not to go this week?
As we entered the sanctuary, I was busy figuring out what the congregation was up to in the services so that I could catch up. I glanced around at who else ventured out in the rain that morning. Then I opened the worn pages of my siddur and began to pray, murmuring the words that I say every morning. I soon lost myself in the cadence of the songs, my voice mingling with those of the congregation. Someone made announcements for the community, followed by a group of little boys leading us all in the final prayer. Before long, my friend and I were gathered at her grandparents’ table biting into Gram’s homemade challah.
And so, Shabbat went on. The Tree of Life Synagogue never crossed my mind. I had never even heard of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. Now, though, I can’t stop thinking about the people there, my people.
We were about 340 miles apart, yet doing the same things that morning. We each chose to make our way to shul, to join our community in prayer and share in the peace of Shabbat. That’s where the similarities ended. At nearly 10:00 a.m., while I heard the Torah being read, the Tree of Life Synagogue congregants were gunned down simply for being who they are, who I am, who we are.
I sit here now, shaken to the core and vainly trying to comprehend how someone could harbor such deep-rooted hatred of my people. Reading the reports and listening to the news, my mind balks at Robert Bowers’ cold blooded declarations:
“I just want to kill Jews.”
“All Jews must die.”
It’s not the first time that we’ve heard these words in this sequence. But there is still no method to the madness. Eight men and three women — children, siblings, spouses, parents, grandparents. Eleven irreparable holes torn in the fabric of the lives of all they touched. Zero reasons why, just a 57% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes from 2016 to 2017 across the United States. Will there ever be a way to convey the enormity of what stands behind these numbers?
Deane Roote, one of the Tree of Life congregants, said in an interview, “It just seems so painfully, brutally ironic that a hate crime takes those who share love.” This love that the victims shared is an integral piece of the faith that I can’t imagine living without.
Regardless where I go, I have a community. Strangers aren’t really strangers, rather family members who don’t hesitate to open their arms to me even though we’ve never met before. I’ve spent Shabbat with many types of Jews, each of us falling somewhere unique on a spectrum of our observance. I remember my first Friday night dinner at UMD’s Hillel, as a prospective student, hearing the words, “For those of us whose custom it is to wash on the bread, please do so now.” Some people did, others didn’t. We all shared in the experience of reciting the blessing on challah, savoring the doughy bread as though we’d never tasted it before.
With time and learning, baking challah became my favorite way to prepare for Shabbat. The mere act of kneading, braiding, and baking the dough gives me joy, but there’s more to it than that. As I discovered that Friday night at Hillel, these simple loaves of bread bring us together.
Just last week the Shabbat Project hosted challah bakes around the world. Social media shows us many things, but none compare to the image of thousands of women, affiliated or not, uniting to bake challah in honor of Shabbat. The connection that develops as we physically handle the dough, transforming it into a piece of the puzzle that builds our Jewish faith, is special. Being able to share that is irreplaceable.
Following on the heels of last week’s tragedy, it doesn’t feel right to bring in Shabbat as usual. I don’t feel right sitting here and not doing something different, something to stand up against what is happening around us. During his interview, Deane Roote also said, “The way to respond in a moment of trauma is to reach out.” Perhaps for you that’s with words, to comfort those in need and speak out against anti-Semitism. It’s times like these that words fail me.
Instead, I put on my apron when I need time to process. I find solace while mixing dough. Especially now, when I don’t know what else to do, it feels right to share Pumpkin Challah. It pairs the comforting familiarity of tradition with a twist to reflect that things need to change. People of all faiths, all over the world are stepping forward in memory of those who needlessly perished. It’s time that we do, too.
I know that freshly baked Pumpkin Challah won’t solve any problems. It won’t stop anti-Semitism or erase senseless hatred from the world. But if it helps bring you a little bit closer to someone else, gives you a shared love, then it’s a step.