As I reflect on the 10.27 synagogue shooting, I remember my younger brother, who was born on October 27th in 1962. He almost died on the day of his birth, and received a blood transfusion to survive. He did die 37 years later, before his 38th birthday. The disease he died from – Hepatitis C, which he may have contracted during that blood transfusion – is now curable.
On October 27, 2018, before Shabbat morning services began, David Rosenthal and I talked about my brother’s birthday, and David showed me his non-driver’s license with his own birthday on it. He was 54 years old, and was delighted to talk about it. Within half an hour he would be frozen at that age forever.
This year, the space between the Gregorian calendar date and the Hebrew calendar date, Ḥeshvan 18, is more than a week. Somewhat cloistered by the pandemic, we are afforded a lot of time to contemplate.
After two years, many of us find we can separate the martyrdom of those who were murdered from the persons they were, and we can remember them and miss them. The ugliness of the hate that killed them can now – to me, at least, related only through friendship – be separated from the shock that they were taken from us so suddenly and the ache we feel as we miss them in daily life.
We can think about each of them and carry forward their legacy, which is what we are supposed to do as Jews, to elevate their souls along with our fellow humans’. We can remember where their colors fit into our communal tapestry, and we can picture when it was a whole evolving image, before those colors were erased.
We can comfort their families, honor their memories, carry them forward. They will not be returning, but they also have not left us.
Our fellow congregants have pointed out that Tree of Life congregation has been displaced twice: first through the shooter destroying the inside of our building (and the Ḥevra Kadisha, holy though their mission, and the investigators, too, didn’t leave any sullied surface unremoved), and the second displacement was through COVID forcing us from services in the building where we rent space as we figure out how to reconfigure our own building toward the future. We also have had to separate from the folks at Calvary Episcopal Church who so generously opened not only their gorgeous Gothic cathedral, but also themselves to share in services and programming, joining in our Ḥanukkah and Purim festivities (including parts in our Harry Potter spiel, which played well in their room) and inviting us to their Christmas pageant prior to enjoying the latkes we shared.
So we are where we are. We have lost 11 friends, 11 unique individuals who don’t really translate to 11 candles or 11 stars or 11 angels, as they were people, individual characters, funny and sweet. We have suffered injury. And we have to deal with a pandemic.
The shooting and COVID-19 are not totally dissimilar.
Yet we have gained a lot through both the shooting and COVID. Besides our friends at Calvary and the wonderful people of Pittsburgh, communities far and wide reached out to us after the shooting: those who have lived through similar horrors themselves, and so many millions of others who just wanted to share a sliver of peace and love. We have visited them, they have visited us. We have made our mark on works of art, on musical compositions, on poetry and prose, on dance and documentaries. And they have left lasting impressions on us as well.
A Jewish congregation in Kampala, Uganda, named itself Tree of Life in our honor. Members came to visit us, and we are sharing resources with them. We wear kippot made by their members. We will tend this connection along with so many others.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned, COVID has required us to go online for our services, classes, meetings, and other connections. Still, we have been able to include people from all around the world in all of these things, who otherwise may not have been able to join. As I seem to say often, we are bringing together our fellow Jews from the proverbial four corners of the earth, not just virtually as if in a dream or a storybook, but quite literally – they join us not only in our congregations and minyanim, they are inside our homes as well.
The shooting and COVID-19 are not totally dissimilar.
Yes, they have the current US president in common, as well. I cannot avoid mentioning him.
The murderer entered blasting with words that seem to be gaining traction, spreading in use: Jews bring in immigrants to take over our country, to start a war and kill us all. We have to kill the Jews first. We are discontent, so the Jews must be at fault, let’s kill them.
This particular killer murdered people David’s age and over. He had heard similarly divisive words from the President, the same person who came to Pittsburgh to pay respects during that week of the hell of burying eleven individuals, rather than waiting until all had been interred.
I hear similarity in the express and tacit permission of the president to fly in the face of reason on both the shooting and COVID, saying both that the immigrants are rapists and are going to kill us, and that the virus is just another flu and we have nothing to worry about. Both the virus and the home-bred warriors with arsenals are given permission. Go ahead, killers, he effectively says, take them.
Jews being murdered often serves as a harbinger of hatred against others, as we are nearly always at the top of the list (along with other minorities, the media, and the liberals), especially where authoritarian attitudes seem to be taking hold. If we don’t heed the warning, more and more persons who are objects of hatred are going to be killed under similar premises, based on a fear that they (we) are causing some major harm and the fearful discontented folks armed with automatic weapons must get out and kill them (us) first. A young man in Kenosha recently did just that, and received praise for it.
The virus, too, is going to keep spreading if we don’t mitigate it, just like the hate. Of course, if we could provide N95 masks for everyone, and if everyone would wear them every single time we leave our homes for the entire time we are out (completely over our noses and mouths), and wash our hands as we have been taught, and if we would otherwise stay in our family bubbles for just two months, the virus would effectively be gone.
We are not heeding that warning, either. Governmental officials are flouting their disdain for mitigating the virus with masks because it is somehow unmanly. They are encouraging both the white supremacists and the viruses to come and get us.
When people are discontented, they blame and hate. I guess they just don’t feel like protecting others from the virus.
We live in a country that was founded with the potential to equalize all and to create unity. It is on us to address the discontent people are feeling, to hear it and see it before it erupts into violence. We know how to do that! We have to do it now.
Once the majority sentiment belongs to the discontented, even if we are some of the discontented, we may well have lost the ability to address the issues, without an unnecessary revolution.
Commemorating the 10.27 shooting for this week and a day is not only about those we lost, about the dead, nor is it only about the injured and the many brave first responders, four of whom also were injured. We were all violated that day, all of humanity was violated.
The violation is continuing and multiplying. We were not the first, but we should have been the last. The signs have been right there in front of us, and though Pittsburgh has been wonderful in solidarity and we have proven we are a unified community, we are a part of a country and a planet for which we must continue to address the discontent and inequality in an all-encompassing way. The example Pittsburgh is setting has yet to take hold.
And so for COVID as well: we saw it coming, and we were slow to respond. We are still not responding, many feeling that if they cannot see it, it isn’t there. Meanwhile, doctors are finding that while the virus is transmitted through air and surfaces, and may come in through our respiratory systems, it hops into our bloodstreams, targeting other organs. It can lead to potential arterial and capillary blood clotting, and lasting nerve, heart, and liver damage. It causes many potential negative consequences in many systems of the body, and it might never leave us.
Our best defense is wearing masks, yet we don’t seem to be able to muster the ability to make and distribute enough really effective masks, and we don’t seem to have the nerve to face the virus and say, “Not me, not today.”
“Not me, not today” is effectively what I said to the shooter on 10.27. Am I living on borrowed time? Maybe, if we don’t collectively address the problems. Will COVID get me? Maybe, if we don’t collectively address the problems.
As COVID once again increases in case numbers, and we are spending these several days remembering the shooting, I find my thoughts calling out to those we lost.
Joyce? David! Sylvan and Bernice… Sweet Rose? Cecil and Irv, our gabbayim? Visit us just once more, please, so we can smile in each others’ presence, discuss the weighty and unweighty issues, and pass the minutes of the morning together. Come around and let us know that we are doing right by you and your legacy, that we continue to work to make the world a healthy and healthful loving place.
And let us know whether you can help us from where you are, because the world is a mess right now.
The shooting and COVID-19 are not totally dissimilar: both should be preventable.