Ways of Seeing by Alice Leeds: Dealing with the Pittsburgh shooting
Each night as I fall asleep I feel gratitude for my good fortune that day — photos we received of our new grandson, golden leaves still hanging onto their limbs, the brisk morning walk around our neighborhood, the delicious meal my husband and I shared that evening. My daily life is filled with blessings.
These days I also feel vulnerable. Although my parents both faced blatant anti-Semitism as children and young adults and a number of extended family members survived the Holocaust, prejudice was only rarely a topic of discussion in my home or a part of my experience. I think about it more now, and in more personal ways.
I met my husband while living in Pittsburgh. Shortly after meeting, we celebrated the bar mitzvah of my friend’s son at the Tree of Life Synagogue where the recent tragedy occurred. It was our first dress-up occasion. I still have a photo of the two of us posed in our outfits, Rick in his herringbone thrift-store jacket and bow tie, me in a turquoise silk pants suit purchased from a Malaysian classmate in graduate school.
I loved living in Pittsburgh. It is culturally rich, ethnically diverse and unpretentious. Housing is affordable; people are friendly. But Rick was in the process of moving to Vermont, so I followed him, which meant leaving Pittsburgh.
If I had stayed in Pittsburgh, might I have been at the Tree of Life Synagogue attending services on Oct. 27? Probably not. But I might have known some of the eleven elders who were shot down. Several were likely at the synagogue when I attended that long-ago bar mitzvah. At least one of them lived in my old neighborhood adjacent to Squirrel Hill.
For days after the Pittsburgh massacre, the most deadly assault on Jews in American history, I inhaled stories about it. I read about each of the victims, the brothers who loved carrying the Torah scrolls, the elderly couple who held hands throughout the service, the 97-year-old congregant who was still full of zest. These elders were the bedrock of the Tree of Life Community, the devoted members who arrived early and held down the traditions each week so young families could filter in later on during the lengthy Shabbat morning service.
As I consumed information, I learned about topics I had previously avoided. I discovered that “globalists” and “cosmopolitans” are code words for Jews and that white nationalists place Jews at the top of their hit list. Why? They believe we are supporting the migration of refugees into the United States so we can use them to control the country. This myth about my people stuns me.
The Pittsburgh shooting put American Jews at a heightened level of vigilance. Jews congregating in groups all over the country are taking greater safety precautions, like every other group that’s been targeted. Our houses of worship are no longer the refuge they once were.
To begin healing, Jews joined with our neighbors across Vermont and the rest of the country to chant, sing, pray and sit in confused and distraught silence together. What next? Here’s what Laurence Pearlman, a member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, suggests:
“What can we do? Let’s start with a few simple things. Love your neighbor. Embrace differences. Speak up when someone is being persecuted — even when it makes you uncomfortable. Join 815 Choose Civility [an online community]. Be tolerant. Learn, teach and listen … Lastly, mourn with us. Pittsburgh was not just a Jewish loss, it was a loss of all our religious freedoms.”
It is beyond horrific that other mass shootings occurred shortly before and following Pittsburg’s. Just days earlier, a white man with a history of violence and mental illness attempted to enter a black church in Kentucky before going into a grocery store and fatally shooting two African Americans. A week later, at a club in California a U.S. Marine veteran entered a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, killing twelve people and injuring more. One of the slain was a veteran sheriff, about to retire, who rushed into the bar to help.
This all feels overwhelming. An ancient Jewish teaching attributed to Rabbi Tarfon says, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” The vastness of this work is not an excuse to do nothing. We are tasked to continue addressing issues of other-ness, mental illness and gun violence in every way we know how.
Each effort we make is essential. Our governor and legislature recently took steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands. We’ve acknowledged the spike in hate crimes and the crisis in psychiatric care. We have a mountain to climb, and I am grateful for every uphill step.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.