The weight of the world in Pittsburgh

There are no words to adequately describe the last 48 hours in Pittsburgh. Ironically, that is how many of the messages I’ve received begin: “I have no words… Words cannot truly express… I don’t know what to say…” But there are words. It’s just that through the pain, tears, shock and grief, it’s really hard to find the right ones.

If there is one mantra I keep hearing around Squirrel Hill, it is that words matter. Hate speech leads to hate crime. And caring words lead to acts of kindness, compassion, generosity and ultimately healing. My father and I are so grateful for the countless words of love and offers of spiritual and/or concrete support—from members of my home congregation and community in Aventura, Florida, rabbinic colleagues of all denominations, college classmates; summer camp bunk-mates, youth group members, childhood babysitters and strangers of all faiths from around the globe. These words have enabled us to place one foot in front of the other.

When I was growing up in Squirrel Hill, my mother used say, “actions speak louder than words” so often that she would just say “ASLTW” and I knew I had better shape up. While it’s true that actions count more, that was before the internet. Today, words matter more than they used to because they echo and reverberate around the world in an instant – for evil and for good. So when someone takes a moment to send a message of concern, it matters. It helps and makes a difference.

My Bar Mitzvah at Tree of Life, officiated by the real Rabbi Berkun – 1986

The morning when the Pittsburgh Jewish community buried Cecil and David Rosenthal, Daniel Stein and Jerry Rabinowitz, I had to take my parents’ home phone off the hook and put my father’s cell phone in my pocket. My father, Rabbi Alvin Berkun, Rabbi Emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation, was answering every phone call from well-wishers and reporters instead of eating breakfast and getting ready.

We were about to leave the house for Rodef Shalom (a beautiful Pittsburgh synagogue that graciously hosted the Rosenthal double funeral while the FBI continued to comb through Tree of Life) when the doorbell rang. It was Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Tree of Life Congregation’s steady hand, spiritual leader and mass shooting survivor. He thought something terrible had happened to my father because he was unreachable for 90 minutes.

The burden on Rabbi Jeffrey Myers right now is simply unimaginable. In his words, he “saw his congregants executed.” He is a passionate, compassionate Rabbi (and Cantor) with feelings and opinions like any other. While he and my father are burying congregants and comforting the community, Rabbi Myers is the one on the front page of national newspapers, caught in the midst of an intractable political divide. I know he had more important things to do than traverse the police blockades on our street to check on my father. He is a mensch. May God continue to give him and my father strength to make it through this traumatic week.

Rabbi Alvin Berkun and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

The line of people waiting to enter Rodef Shalom for Cecil and David wraps around the block. We park where we can and approach the synagogue. I will never forget the scene of the line parting for my father like the Sea of Reeds. We walked through the two rows of people as mourners do when departing a grave. It was silent and sad and reverent. Pittsburghers are amazing.

We gather beside the two caskets in the sanctuary where everyone is hugging one another. Despite the mental fog from shock, I somehow summon the ability to see someone’s face after 25 years and recognize them. From old classmates to my father’s contemporaries, I am surprised at how quickly I recall their names as if they were filed in the recesses of my soul. Our relationship is instantly refreshed because our connection was never lost. When roots are planted deep, they never falter. We cry and also laugh at how we used to be. With our eyes, we acknowledge that we now share yet another layer of connection, a tragic bond that will never fade.

As I chant Psalm 23, I feel myself trembling. “The Lord is my shepherd…” Cecil and David’s mother rests her head on her husband’s shoulder. They are not young. It is devastating to watch. I try to imagine how they are feeling, but I cannot fathom it. It is harrowing.

My father follows and tells everyone that they have just met the “real” Rabbi Berkun. There is laughter and it enables everyone to breathe. “He went into the family business.” More laughter and more breathing. Then he tells everyone that Cecil and David helped raise me because at the age of 10 years, I lived in the synagogue. But my father was on the bimah and I was in the back of the chapel or sanctuary with Cecil and David. I spent more time at Tree of Life with them than I did him.

Usually, when someone is “special” it is a euphemism for developmental challenges. But Cecil and David were special in much more significant ways. They were an omnipresent force for friendliness throughout the neighborhood. Everyone knew them because they made their lovable selves known. They taught me from a young age about kindness, friendliness, compassion, patience and playfulness. Sadly, I only appreciate it now after they are gone. From now on, when someone affects my life for the better, I will never again hesitate to let them know it.

We escorted the caskets down the aisle and out the sanctuary doors. When we reached the steps, I could see that the pallbearers were struggling with Cecil who was larger than life both in body and spirit. A giant, tall bearded man was helping to carry David. (I later learned that it was Steelers defensive lineman Brett Keisel. My Steelers-loving son would have recognized him as Cecil and David would have. I didn’t know at the time that the players and coach were attending, as the Rosenthal brothers were huge fans.)

I rushed to grasp the railing of Cecil’s casket and was surprised by the strong pull of gravity downwards. It felt less like Cecil’s body and more like the weight of the world. I was carry both Cecil and a metaphor for this tragedy: if we are to move forward, we must pull ourselves and one another up by force. If we don’t fight against and resist the forces of hatred and evil all around us, we all will get dragged down, and fast.

After the funeral I had to rush to a different cemetery for the private, graveside funeral of Daniel Stein. I didn’t know the past president of New Light, a congregation that held services at Tree of Life, but I do know his daughter-in-law Jeannina. I first met Jeannina 10 years ago when we met in Aventura and she told me her story of being raised Catholic but always knowing that her ancestors were crypto-Jews. Her grandmother told that her grandmother fastidiously cleaned the house on Fridays, mysteriously lit candles, refrained from pork and believed that you don’t need an intermediary to confess to God. As a single woman, Jeannina was eager to reclaim her Jewish roots as her own.

I had never met a student like Jeannina. She was relentless in her preparation and never missed a Shabbat service. The synagogue staff fell in love with her. She not only confirmed her Jewish identity according to Jewish law, but she became an integral member of our family and community. We were so sad when she told us she was moving to Pittsburgh for a job, but I was thrilled to connect her there with the “real” Rabbi Berkun. She stayed in touch with us and with Bayla, an elderly Holocaust survivor in our synagogue in Aventura whom she had befriended and who promised Jeannina a nice Jewish boy if she moved back.

But Jeannina was destined to meet her bashert, Joe, in the Steel City. My wife Lauren and I were so happy when she got engaged, delighted when she got married, excited when she emailed me on my birthday the sonogram image when she was pregnant with a boy. She gave birth seven months ago to a son who adored his grandfather, Daniel.

Standing over her father-in-law’s grave, Jeannina sobbed in my arms while sharing her nightmarish realization: “My ancestors suffered in Spain during the inquisition. When I had my son, I believed he would never suffer like they did. Now look at him! He will grow up without a grandfather.”

When someone chooses Judaism as an adult, the Talmud requires that the Rabbi first warn: “Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? (Yevamot 47a).” Ten years ago in America, I would say this line is a kind of joke. It simply did not capture the experience of being Jewish in the USA. But I said it anyway in homage to our painful past.

I cannot believe that in 2018, I now must say it in earnest.

Written from Pittsburgh, sent from home in Aventura, still with a broken-heart.

About the Author
Jonathan Berkun is the senior rabbi of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Miami, past-President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was raised in his father's synagogue, Tree of Life Congregation of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh.