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When they ‘go low,’ we go to shul — Pittsburgh, a month later

I've learned that I have to keep terror from overwhelming and defeating me, especially when it happens in my own turf
The day after a deadly shooting, people arrive to pay their respects in front of a memorial outside of the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 28, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
The day after a deadly shooting, people arrive to pay their respects in front of a memorial outside of the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 28, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

When I was a post-college student in Israel during the Gulf War in 1990-91, I remember asking the son of a friend of my parents how he was explaining the events to his children, all under 10 at the time. He said plainly that he told them it was Amalek who was sending Scud missiles. At the time, I thought it was too simplistic an answer, but then I didn’t have kids of my own yet and didn’t really know what kind of a response could possibly be more appropriate.

Now that I have lived through the events of October 27 here in Pittsburgh at my own synagogue New Light, which has been renting space at Tree of Life since November 2017, I realize that may be the best explanation. In fact, one of the first pieces written about the events was titled, Amalek comes to Pittsburgh. The author, Lou Weiss, explained what and who Amalek was (see Deuteronomy 25: 17-19 for an explanation of their tactic for attacking the elderly and the weak), and how it seemed the most apt metaphor for comprehending what had happened on October 27 and why 11 beautiful souls were taken from this world.

There isn’t really any way to grasp what happened or why, or what motivates anti-Semites. The explanation given in the Book of Esther may be all that is necessary: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom and their laws are different from every other people’s and they do not follow the king’s laws. Therefore it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them” (Esther 3: 8).

Until October 27, I never felt like I experienced anti-Semitism in the US. Graves at the Philadelphia area cemetery where my ancestors were buried were desecrated, which eroded my confidence in America, but did not harm me in my everyday life. I even wrote about how the fact that so many were coming together to repair the cemetery and honor the dead was having a positive effect that far outweighed the desecration. I’ve written about the importance of standing out as Jews as the best way to counter anti-Semitism. But even a month after the events of October 27, I still don’t grasp why a shooter would have come to our congregation, why we are now in the news instead of reading about it, and why 11 people who should still be part of this world are no longer.

Perhaps the simplest explanation — that there is evil in the world and we choose to call it Amalek — is the only one. And the best way to counter it is to remain distinctive and follow our tradition and find value and meaning in it.

The closest analogy I have to this time is the times I’ve spent in Israel when there was serious danger. I was in Israel during the Gulf War and visited for a month in December 2001– January 2002, when there were many many pigu’im (attacks); my husband and I were justifiably nervous that if we went out to a place like Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in January 2002, we might not come back home to our young children. We made our will before we left on that trip. I was asked many times, both when I left and when I came back, whether I was scared to go. Of course I was afraid, how could I not be? Even now, looking at how many attacks there were at that time and how frequently they happened is terrifying. The two things I said at the time were “What about all those who live in Israel and experience that fear all the time? I shouldn’t go because I am afraid to experience what they live with constantly for a few weeks?” That didn’t make sense to me as a Jew who feels my fate is tied to the fate of other Jews.

The other thing I felt before I left for Israel in December 2001 with a 6-year-old and a 14-month-old (who is now spending a year studying in Jerusalem), and feel even more strongly since October 27, is that we can’t live our lives in fear. We can’t let the hate and rage of others determine how we will live our lives. Scary though it is, if we change who we are and how we live in response to threats of anti-Semites, of whatever stripe, we are giving them a victory.

I was so proud that one of the first things our teenage daughter said when I told her there had been a shooting at Tree of Life was, “I hope people are not afraid to come to shul any more.” On October 27, when friends and neighbors heard the news in various ways, they came to our house to see whether we were okay. They asked what they could do, and all we could think to say at the time was, “Join us at synagogue next Shabbat. That is the best thing to do.” We did not know yet that anyone had been killed or how many victims there were. We did not even think that our synagogue would not be able to be used as a place to pray the following Shabbat because it was a crime scene where evidence was being gathered, still guarded by the FBI. It was and is unfathomable. But all those who died al Kiddush Hashem, as Jewish martyrs, were people who were in shul because they loved to be in shul, loved communal prayer and Shabbat, and would have been glad to know that many people honored their memories and values by showing up for Shabbat the next week.

I don’t know what drove the #ShowUpForShabbat movement, but can only say it pleased my family. We want people to feel proud to live as Jews to learn and study our tradition more deeply and to engage with it in whatever ways make sense to them personally. And not to be afraid to gather in communal spaces. When we began to walk to shul the next Shabbat, and our neighbors who were Tree of Life members joined us in walking, and then encountered our Chabad rabbi neighbor who had passed the synagogue we were journeying to, and let us know that the crowds massing for the Shabbat morning prayers looked like Kol Nidre crowds, we felt affirmed. All of Jewish and non-Jewish Squirrel Hill was with us in our grief. It heartened us to see the enormous sanctuary of Beth Shalom  packed with worshipers on November 3. Avi Mayer, the assistant executive director at the American Jewish Congress put it succinctly, “When they go low, we go to shul.”

I’ve learned from the ways Israelis responded to events like the Gulf War and the many, many attacks civilians have experienced over the years that the best way to deal with terror is not to let it overwhelm and defeat you, to get things back to normal as much as possible. Even though I feel jumpy in synagogue, turning to see who is in the room and feeling startled by noises, I have been going much earlier than I usually arrive each week. The only writing I have done until now has been pieces about the weekly Torah portion for the 929 website. I’ve made shiva calls and am trying to continue to support those who lost family members. I’m planning gatherings to teach Torah; our synagogue is starting new Hebrew classes and classes in Haftarah trope so others can learn this skill, which Dan Stein, Mel Wax and Rich Gottfried were so adept at.

I don’t know why any of this happened but I know what our response must be. We must strengthen ourselves as Jews and remain committed to the values of those who died. Scared or not, I am returning to synagogue, weekdays and Shabbat. I know Dan, Mel and Rich would be proud and hope to continue to live out the values they and the other eight kedoshim (martyrs) lived for, though they are themselves no longer with us.

About the Author
Beth Kissileff is a writer and journalist. She is the author of the novel Questioning Return, and the editor of the anthologies Reading Genesis and Reading Exodus (forthcoming). She is married to Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New LIght Congregation.
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