The shooter does not win
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The shooter does not win

Beth Kissileff talks about being in Squirrel Hill, and what she’s learned from it

Beth Kissileff wasn’t at shul that Shabbat morning.

Her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, was leading services at New Light Congregation, a small Conservative community housed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s traditionally Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Dr. Kissileff — who grew up in Teaneck, where her parents, Karen and Dr. Harry Kissileff, still live, and where she was an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom, and later earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania — had planned to join him later that day — it was October 27, 2018 — but she was enjoying the luxury of a leisurely breakfast first.

We all know what happened that day. A murderer, fueled by antisemitic rage that he channeled through the weapons he carried — an AR-15 and three Glock semi-automatic pistols — killed 11 people and wounded six more.

Rabbi Perlman was lucky. He was not among those victims. But the trauma of that morning, the worst massacre of Jews in the United States, lingers.

Dr. Kissileff edited a book, “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” that came out in 2020. Both she and her husband were among the essayists whose work is included there. (The anthology was co-edited by Eric Lidji, the director of the Rauh Jewish Archive at the Heinz History Center.)

“Bound in the Bond of Life” will be reissued in paperback in October, close to the anniversary of the attacks. That makes talking about the book timely, as does the increase in assault-rifle mass murders, particularly the recent massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, and the Supreme Court’s erosion of New York State’s gun safety laws when it overturned the state’s 1911 Sullivan Act. That act had made it necessary for people who wanted to carry concealed weapons to be licensed to do so; that is no longer the case.

“This is retraumatizing,” Dr. Kissileff said. “Every time it happens” — every time, that is, when there is another mass shooting — “it is retraumatizing for me and my family. We know the impact that it is going to have on those families, and on the people and families who are trying to help them, and on the concentric circles in the larger community. It’s a terrible mental health trauma for people in America today, because of the fear of being in a public place.

“When you know that any public place can be a target, it is terrifying.”

Once again, she retells the story of that morning, how her husband “was very fortunate, because he was in the basement of the building,” where his congregation met, “and he heard a noise. He said, ‘I had never heard a gunshot before in my life, but when I heard it, I knew what it was.’

Beth Kissileff with her daughter
Yael Perlman (All photos courtesy Beth Kissileff)

“He got the three people who had been in the front of the room to hide in a storage space, a big, open, completely dark space.” He’s known about that room, despite the shul’s having rented Tree of Life’s basement just a few months earlier, because he’d needed a storage space during the recent High Holy Days, his first (and only) in that building, so he’d done a bit of exploring.

“But there were two other people who were in the back of the room, in the kitchen, and they didn’t have time to hide. So they were killed.

“One of the people hiding with my husband, Mel Wax, was 87, and hard of hearing, so we don’t know if he didn’t hear what was going on or didn’t understand it. His family said that he never would have thought that anyone would threaten him. So he left — and he was shot.” And he died.

“My husband and the other two lived,” Dr. Kissileff continued. “My husband was extremely fortunate. It was a big, dark room, but he was able to feel his way around it and go upstairs and go out a door at the back of the synagogue. He didn’t take the other two with him, because he didn’t know if he would make it out.

“He did. And a police officer yelled at him to get the f*** out of there, so he walked home,” about 15 minutes away. Because the community had been alerted to the presence of an active shooter, everyone stayed indoors, so Rabbi Perlman walked through eerily empty streets.

“There’s not only the physical impact of a shooting, but also the mental health aspect,” Dr. Kissileff said. “A year after the shooting, I’d see people and ask how they were, and they would say things like ‘I have stomach problems’ or ‘My 11-year-old had anxiety before, and now it’s exacerbated.’

“My pediatrician, who is not Jewish, said — this was before covid — that wherever she goes to a concert or any kind of big event, right away she looks for the exits. Everyone here is very conscious of how to get out” of any public place.

She hasn’t been back to the Tree of Life building. “No one has used the place since it happened,” she said. All three of the congregations that used the space have found other rentals in other Jewish buildings.

Dr. Kissileff has strong feelings about gun reform. “I am disheartened by the Supreme Court ruling,” she said. “The fewer guns, the better, and they should be limited to some purpose, like hunting. People who don’t have a good reason to carry them shouldn’t.”

She thinks that it’s important to go after the companies that make guns, and then market them by building up and then preying on gun buyers’ fears — “it’s a horrifying way to earn money,” she said — by suing them as well as by trying to regulate their activities.

The victims and their advocates cannot sue any gun manufacturers yet, though, because they don’t have enough information. That’s because the murderer has not yet been tried.

From left, Dr. Kissileff; her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman; Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf, and Rabbi Ron Muroff.

That’s mainly because the death penalty is likely to be an option, should the murderer be found guilty. It takes a long time to prepare for the trial — covid didn’t help — and then, should he be found guilty and sentenced to death, there will be many years of appeals. Every time he’s back in court, everyone is retraumatized yet again.

“My husband says ‘HaShem yakom damav,’ that God will revenge the victims’ blood. To me, the idea is that we as human beings don’t have the right to make those decisions. I believe that in some way God will revenge their blood.” It’s a task for God, not for people, she explained.

There has been some hope that has grown from the nightmare.

The synagogue had a relationship with the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church, which only deepened after the murders. On Martin Luther King Day in 2019, a delegation from the shul and the church went to Charleston, South Carolina, where they marched in the parade together, joined by representatives of the city’s Jewish federation.

Dr. Kissileff, Rabbi Perlman, and the other New Light representatives went to Mother Emmanuel Church, where in 2015 another hate-deranged shooter, this one 21 years old, had murdered nine churchgoers, after sitting in Bible study with them. That murderer was sentenced to death in 2017; his appeals still are ongoing.

“The pastor said to us, ‘Come to the front,’ and we did, and everyone else came to the front of the church and embraced us,” Dr. Kissileff said, her eyes tearing as she recalled the intensity of that day. “A video guy who was there filming said, ‘I felt the presence of God that day.’

“I did too,” she added.

The experience affected the whole family deeply. Ms. Kissileff and Rabbi Perlman have three daughters; all of them now advocate for gun safety.

Talking about the violence at her shul on Shabbat still is difficult for her, Dr. Kissileff said, but when she chooses to do so, “I am able to control the story. The book gave people the chance to tell their own stories in their own way. It’s important to figure out what the story is and how to tell it.

“For me, telling the story is trying to find a way to foster people’s faith, to understand that part of the mystery is that we don’t know where God was that day. But we do know that God cries with us. A way to honor the memories of the people who died is to encourage people’s faith.

“I have taught a number of people to read haftarah,” she continued. “In part, that’s because the three people who were killed were our haftarah readers. But it’s also because I want to show that we can increase our faith, connect to it in new ways. We don’t want to let the shooter have the last word. We want to say that we are not afraid to be Jewish. That we want to learn more and to do more and to understand more.

“All of the people who were killed died on Shabbat. They were living their lives as Jews, praying as Jews. I think that in response it is important to continue to follow those values, to live as Jews, to value Shabbat, to pray, to study Torah, and to understand what it means to be part of the Jewish community. Any fear of continuing to live a Jewish life will give the shooter a victory, and it is our goal not to do that.

“HaShem yakom damav. God will avenge us by making it possible for us to continue living as Jews, and to find meaning living as Jews.”

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