Like many other people my age, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded shortly after liftoff — on a school bus outside my high school in Berkley, Mich. I also remember exactly where I was when I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11 — in the lobby of the JCC in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
And now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha Congregation that left 11 souls dead, I know that I will always remember where I was when I heard about it. I was standing in my synagogue’s social hall during kiddush following Shabbat morning services in Summit. A member of my community who correctly suspected that I had not yet heard or read any news that morning pulled me aside to tell me what had happened at my former congregation.
Although I typically avoid electronics and social media on Shabbat, I immediately went to my office and turned on a computer to find out as much as I could. I reached out to friends and acquaintances in Pittsburgh. I sent out a message announcing a special service later that day for anyone who wanted to be together as a community while we tried to process what had happened.
As I think about it nearly one year later, I feel that it was more than just timing or coincidence that placed me in the synagogue when I heard that terrible news. On the one hand, that day has changed everything about synagogue life. On the other, it has reinforced for me what I always believed a synagogue should be. It’s hard to measure exactly how the Pittsburgh shooting has impacted synagogue life across the country, but there’s no doubt that it has.
So, what has changed? In a word: security. Prior to the Pittsburgh shooting, I felt strongly that the doors of the synagogue should always be swinging open to let everyone know they are welcome. Since that day, I have come to realize that in order for people to feel welcome, they first have to feel safe. We’ve had to work very hard to make sure that members of our community feel safe in our building. Our congregation’s Security Committee, which used to be an afterthought, has now become a central part of everything we do.
Unlike my pre-Pittsburgh self, I find myself double-checking the locks on the doors rather than holding them open. I must admit to feeling nervous just writing about security in the most general of terms because it might give away some vulnerability. Despite all of our efforts, I am aware of several families who have decided not to send their children to our education programs because it was too stressful to drop their children off at a synagogue. Pittsburgh changed synagogue security and I don’t see it ever returning to how it was.
And what has stayed the same? We must continue to reach out to other faiths. More than ever I am more convinced that the answer to anti-Semitism — which festers on both ends of the political spectrum — is strengthening our relationships with other religious communities. And this became apparent to me almost immediately after the shooting.
The following Shabbat, as my congregants and I approached the walkway to our synagogue with nerves frayed, we were welcomed by members of the Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, who lined our walkway holding candles — helping us to feel safe in our own home. They reminded us that the Jewish community did not stand alone against the hatred. We have friends and allies.
It was only a few months later that another shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, grabbed our attention. This time it was two mosques and eventually 51 dead human beings. Our congregation decided to pay it forward. We remembered the love we felt when our Unitarian neighbors appeared in our parking lot and we decided to do the same for our friends at the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR). The very next Friday, we lined the walkway as the members of ISBR came together for their Jumu’ah prayer. We wanted them to feel safe in their space. We wanted to remind them that they did not stand alone against the hatred. They have friends and allies.
I wish we lived in a world where we never again needed our neighbors to reach out to comfort us. And, of course, in that perfect world, we would never need to comfort any of our neighbors in turn. However, one year later, it’s clear that we do not yet live in that world.
So, on the one hand, we must continue our recent efforts to create a safe, secure, and welcoming space in which we can carry on the ancient Jewish traditions of Torah (study), Avodah (worship), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of kindness). With the other, though, we must continue to reach out beyond our locked doors to our neighbors of different faiths. This two-pronged approach is rooted in the words of the great sage Hillel, as preserved in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I’m for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”
When we stand up to protect ourselves and our rights, we inevitably make this world a better place for others. When we stand up to protect other people and their rights, we inevitably make this world a better place for ourselves. And sooner is always better.
Robert Gregory Bowers may have callously extinguished the lives of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger on Oct. 27 of last year. But no one can extinguish the Jewish yearning for safety and peace wherever we may reside — in Pittsburgh, in Summit, in Jerusalem, or anywhere in between.
I’m still standing in the same place where I heard the tragic news of the Tree of Life shooting. I’m still here in my synagogue. And I hope you still feel safe standing in yours.
Rabbi Avi Friedman, spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center, served the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh from 1999 to 2005.