October 25, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


On this Shabbat B’reishit, this sabbath of creation, our Torah reading describes God placing a fiery ever-turning sword at the entrance of the Garden of Eden to guard and protect the Tree of Life. Tomorrow will mark precisely one year since that fateful day when that Tree of Life was desecrated by the murderous rampage of an antisemitic gunman. Eleven of God’s creation shot dead in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, eleven souls who woke up that Shabbat morning seeking to do exactly what all of us in this room woke up seeking to do: connect to God, connect to community, and connect to our best selves. Eleven souls, members of three congregations, who wanted to heal our broken world by spending a morning in prayer, study, and fellowship, only to have that aim shattered forever by the murderous acts of a hate-filled gunman.

In the days following the Pittsburgh slaughter our community came together, as did so many communities, in an outpouring of sorrow, solidarity, and outrage. A year has passed, and we remain shaken, the wound still fresh, the families still bereaved. If there is one thing I have learned as a rabbi, it is that nobody ever gets over loss; people just learn to manage it, one step, one day, at a time. For the families of the slain, for the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and for American Jewry, October 27, 2018 is a date that will be forever remembered, a wound that will never fully heal. For me as a congregational rabbi, the world is different: the precautions we take, the community conversations of which I am a part, and the budget dollars of Jewish institutions, this one included, now allocated to security. We all feel the ripple. Over the summer, when I go out of town and attend more modest synagogues, I find myself startled when I do not see security a guard. Taking my seat, I catch myself speccing out where the emergency exits are located, and despite being Shabbat-observant, since that day I carry a cell phone in synagogue – just in case. The assumptions of American Jewry changed that day. We are still post-traumatic; though not always visible, our unease is altogether present. This weekend, in partnership with synagogues across the country and the AJC’s #ShowUpForShabbat, we observe the one-year anniversary since the bloodshed, but the calendar marker is ultimately arbitrary. We are changed – today, tomorrow, and forever.

This morning, I would like to organize my reflections on the Tree of Life massacre under four headings – four baskets of reflection – in an attempt to put into words some of the harsh realities, lessons learned, and ongoing obligations that have emerged from that fateful day.

Lesson #1: Antisemitism. One year later, there is a temptation to reflect back on the murderous events of October 27 and extract some global lesson of universal application. That the root cause of the horror is a general deficit of civility or a general toxicity of our public discourse. No question we live in a time of escalating hatreds that need to be checked before they are weaponized as they were that horrific day. And yet, we dare not take our eye off the ball and lose sight of the headline: Antisemitism. It wasn’t a refugee center, a civil rights organization, or an institution representing any one political leaning or interest. It was a synagogue – the building in American life most associated with Jews, the place where one goes if one wants to meet Jews . . . or kill them. Yes, we are blessed to live in a time and place where the state-sanctioned antisemitism of other times and places is not our experience. But antisemitism is real; it is present; it comes from the right and from the left. Not just in Poway, not just in Europe, but all over America. According to the ADL, over 50 Jewish institutions have been targeted since that day in Pittsburgh. We have witnessed the inability of Congress to call out antisemitism, choosing instead a watered-down resolution condemning discrimination in general. Just across the river, there have been a rising number of antisemitic assaults in the Jewish community of Brooklyn. You personally may not feel it, but it is there – on campus, on the internet, and across our country – the world’s oldest hatred alive and well, a virus taking on new and more nefarious expressions, the bloodshed in Pittsburgh being the most violent but far from an exceptional incident.

One year later, the blood of our brothers and sisters cries out to us. We dare not lose our sense of outrage. In recalling the dead, some add Y’hi zikronam barukh, May their memories be for a blessing, while others say Hamakom yikom damam, May God avenge their blood. There are some who interpret the latter to mean that we must take vengeance – an eye for an eye. There are others who say it means that only God can exact vengeance, not human beings. I take it to mean, as our parashah teaches, that we dare not stand by idly as the blood of our kinsmen is shed. We must lobby officials for public funding of security of our Jewish institutions, lest our synagogues and schools be forced to choose, because of the deeds of antisemites, between hiring teachers or guards. Of course we should support communal efforts to strengthen our social fabric – like the city’s recently launched office to prevent hate crimes – but as a Jewish community we have a particular obligation to engage in our own parochial well-being. We have to resist the urge to let the status quo become a new normal. We have to keep our public officials accountable; we have to advocate on behalf of law enforcement authorities tasked to fight antisemitism; and we must provide support, in word and deed, to organizations like the ADL and the AJC whose sole mission is to protect the interests of the Jewish community. Lesson #1: antisemitism is alive and well, and our fight must be steadfast.

Lesson #2: Look for the helpers. Before the Tree of Life shooting, most Americans associated the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill with its most famous resident, Mister Rogers, the icon who famously reminded us that in the face of tragedy one must “look for the helpers,” a point made clear ina recent article by Pittsburgh native Nancy Strichman. I think of police officers like Dan Mead, the first responder who was shot as he entered Tree of Life that day. I think of the millions of dollars raised to assist those traumatized by the shooting. I think of the hundreds of thousands raised by the Muslim community alone. I think of the civic response by the Pittsburgh community, the support of the Pittsburgh Steelers who changed their logo in support of the victims. I think of the thousands of people who came to Pittsburgh from across the country for funerals and memorial services, who rallied together in crisis, the evil intentions of one person prompting so many kind acts.

To be sure, by looking for the helpers, we risk diverting ourselves from the horror, seeking a Hollywood silver lining in what should be known only as an unmitigated atrocity. No question, focusing on the good does not bring back lost lives or heal shattered families. Nevertheless, in recalling acts of kindness performed in the wake of the massacre, we are reminded of a humanity capable of senseless hatred also has the capacity to perform acts of selfless kindness. Is this not the message that God gives to Cain and all of subsequent humanity? That every human being is capable of doing both good and evil, that each one of us can choose kindness, reaching deeper and striving higher in our efforts to mend our broken world. It is a shame that it takes a tragedy to prompt us look for the helpers; we should do it year-round, celebrating and elevating the manifold acts of kindness that bind us together as humanity.

Lesson #3: Choose Life. Married as I am to a daughter of Squirrel Hill, I know many of the people and players, lay and professional, who lead Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. That said, I can’t even begin to imagine the financial, emotional, and institutional considerations going into the future of Tree of Life synagogue, still shuttered one year later. Should the building, pockmarked by bullet holes, be razed? Should Pittsburghers, as would Israelis following a terrorist attack, close the building for an afternoon, repaint the walls, and open for business the next day? Should it be turned into a museum honoring the dead and the martyrs of other atrocities committed against the Jewish people – the Holocaust included? These are a few of the options presently being debated by Pittsburgh Jewry. But the question is not just about the physical building. It is a philosophical question. What should be the path forward in the wake of the tragedy?

To be clear, I am not of the opinion voiced by some that the only response to Pittsburgh is to live Jewishly. We have to fight antisemitism at its root and in all its expressions: verbal, physical, online, and otherwise. As I indicated on the High Holidays, the fact of antisemitism – ancient or modern – is not a compelling reason to live a joyous Jewish life. But I do believe that as Jews we are obligated to muster the requisite resilience of soul to do what those eleven souls sought to do on that final Shabbat morning of their lives: live quiet, proud, dignified Jewish lives of meaning. We must choose life. I am reminded of the midrash regarding creation, about God who found the spiritual wherewithal to create our world after experiencing setback. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world were you to live Jewishly if only to thumb your nose at antisemites. But ultimately, we need to live proud Jewish lives not because people have tried, are trying, and will try to do us harm. We need to live proud and joyful Jewish lives because it is our right, privilege, and obligation to do so. We need to do so because like those slain, we believe in the power of the Jewish people and the role of a synagogue to inspire, educate, and support its membership towards living passion-filled Jewish lives. We need to choose life.

Fourth, finally and most obviously – we need to remember. We need to pause today to meditate on the lives lost that day, each one a universe of his or her own. I think of the decision of each of those Jews to go to synagogue that morning, the connection each of them had to their God, their tradition, and their community. I did not know any of them personally, I imagine most of us did not. I imagine them to be the sort of folk in shul on any given Shabbat morning. This one sitting by the door greeting the newcomer, maybe pointing out the page number in the prayer book. Another sitting on his own, contemplating a life transition, perhaps observing a yahrzeit or celebrating an anniversary. This one trying her best to keep to her Rosh Hashanah resolution to be more engaged in Jewish life by coming to shul every week. This one comes every week, constantly kvetching, always sharing how great the shul would be if only the rabbi would listen to his input. We may not know them, but we are them, and we remember them, each one a kinsman slain:

Joyce Fienberg
Richard Gottfried
Rose Mallinger
Jerry Rabinowitz
Cecil Rosenthal
David Rosenthal
Bernice Simon
Sylvan Simon
Daniel Stein
Melvin Wax
Irving Young

Our brothers and sisters, gunned down for no reason other than their decision to do what all of us are doing – attend synagogue on a Shabbat morning.

It is one year later. Today we stand outside the garden of our innocence, never to return. The Tree of Life has been violated. Our sense of security, if we ever had it, is no more. We step forward into a world far more frightening than we ever thought possible. May we heal, may we find our way, and most of all, today and always, may we remember those slain one year ago.

Y’hi zikhronam barukh, May their memories be for a blessing. Hamakom yikom damam, May God avenge their blood. Please rise for the memorial prayer.