I remember the first time I was introduced to the button. It was 2012 and a mass shooting had just occurred only a short while ago a few miles from where I worked and from where I lived.
I was the rabbi of a synagogue in Denver, and like many institutions in the area, we re-evaluated our security needs in the wake of the movie theater mass shooting in the nearby town of Aurora. Two children of our members had been injured in that shooting. It was a short drive from our synagogue. It was raw and emotional and left people feeling vulnerable in public spaces.
Rabbi, do you feel this small metallic button right under the lectern? Yes, that one right there. It’s a silent alarm. Press it and the Denver Police Department will be notified and be on site as soon as possible.
Suddenly, the responsibilities of my job shifted and expanded. Each Shabbat morning as people gathered in our Sanctuary and took their seats, I not only thought about how to enable their spiritual journeys that morning, but I also felt the responsibility for their physical safety. I was not and I am not a trained security professional. I was their rabbi, but given the circumstances of the world we inhabit, I was also drafted into their physical defense.
This past Shabbat morning, in another part of the country, in a beautiful and quiet leafy suburb of Pittsburgh, another set of synagogue professionals, assumed their dual-roles as spiritual shepherds and guardians of the lives that came into Etz Chaim — Tree of Life Synagogue for refuge, for sanctuary, for comfort, for companionship and for a myriad of other reasons. Unlike every other Shabbat where we wish those who enter in peace to leave in peace, eleven souls were ripped from this world, their lives taken, murdered — butchered — in cold blood.
All of the times I felt for that small metallic button under the lectern. All of the times I felt it as a source of protection, as a small way of offering some relief in the event of an assault. What do all of those times add up to staring into the depths of loss and grief? My heart is torn and my soul lays heavy for the people who have been murdered, for the families and friends who now live with a black hole in their hearts where once there used to be their loved one, and for the clergy and synagogue professionals who every week care for the spiritual wellbeing of their community, and are now grappling with the deaths of so many.
We remember for a blessing:
Joyce Feinberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69
I see those names and in them I see the faces of my former community. I see the loving couple who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. I see the survivor of the Holocaust whose daily living was a testament to human resilience and courage. I see the siblings united in love of Jewish community and prayerful fellowship. I see the faces of grandparents and great-grandparents who cherished their families. I see in those names stories of perseverance, of love, of faith and of hope.
Living across the ocean and across continents, I feel their pain, because it is my pain, because it is all of our pain. I no longer grasp for that small metallic button under the lectern at synagogue, but every once in a while I am reminded of it. I am reminded of what it represents. It represents nothing short of a message: That to live a Jewish life, to choose to exercise Jewish values and to participate in Jewish community, is an act of defiance and an act of courage. It is to do something that others would kill you for.
There are no easy words of comfort in a time like this. No expression that can make it feel all okay, because it is far, far from being okay. The only thing we have is to learn from the lives of those who were martyred and to lift up the values they lived for and ultimately were murdered for. I no longer am responsible for that metallic button in synagogue, but I will reflect on what that button means to live as a Jew nowadays even more so in the coming weeks, months and years.
Ultimately, let us strive for the realization of the words for which Congregation Etz Chaim, Tree of Life Congregation was named: It is a tree of life to those who hold it, and those who grasp it are happy (Proverbs 3:18).