Opinion | Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: Reflections two years later

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers (Mike Weiss via Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

By Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers

As long as we live we will never forget the lives of those we lost in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting at the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha building on Oct. 27, 2018. We will never forget who we were with and what we were doing, how we responded and what we have done to honor these beloved martyrs of our community.

As we commemorate one of the most significant events of our lives, we still grieve, we still remember, we still survive in a time that continues to challenge us in ways we never imagined. Despite these challenges, we will continue to reach out to teach each other about hope, love and community.

Are we better as a nation two years later? While I cannot lessen the impact of more than 200,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States alone, I have learned that during times of trauma, people’s authenticity inevitably rises to the surface. If you are innately a good person, you will find ways to utilize your goodness to help better the lives of others.

In the days and weeks following the Oct. 27 attack that killed 11 worshippers from three congregations, strangers from across the globe offered condolences, prayers, encouragement and even lengthy, handwritten letters pouring out their tears. As we approach the second year commemoration, good people once again reach out, offering continued support, reminding us that they have not forgotten.

I still believe that deep down the vast majority of humanity is composed of good people. They reject all forms of “H” (that word is eliminated from my vocabulary), bigotry, racism, and the all too frequent violent acts that often accompany these words. Perhaps during periods of great stress, who we really are is seen in full view, stripped of all pretense and protective gear. Studies have shown that during great stressors throughout history, anti-Semitism rises.

When coupled with so much else occurring in America at this time, some might suggest that it’s no surprise that the proverbial pot is boiling over. Social unrest. Pandemic. Political upheaval. Economic stress. Serious divisiveness. All at once we find ourselves coping with these entrenched daily travails on top of the indelible mark that Oct. 27 left on each of us. Despite it all, we remain resilient and resolute in moving forward with our lives, with plans to rebuild our synagogue as well as our dreams.

There are plenty of helpers out there and we should look to them, in a reference to the famous advice Mister Rogers’ mother gave him as a child when things were upsetting. We, too, must be helpers because they need our support to swing the perceived pendulum in the opposite direction.

It can seem overwhelming to simultaneously take down the bad and build up the good, but the old adage that “if you sit on the fence and watch you will get splinters” applies. We need to disassemble the fences that separate us and use the wood to instead build bridges. We are all more alike than we recognize, and too frequently we allow the differences to define us. We must use our commonalities to unite us in the goal of making this experiment of a mixing pot called the United States successful.

The silent majority of good, decent people have been silent for too long. When will the day come that they rise up, and state with moral clarity, that words of “H,” bigotry, racism and the violence that they inevitably lead to are unwelcome, and do not belong in our society? Where are the Hebrew Bible prophets reminding us of our responsibilities to protect the orphan, the widow and the stranger? It is “we, the people” who are being tested to extreme limits. Will we pass the test?

Each of us can try harder. Do more. Do better. Only the passage of time will show if our collective resolve and hard work creates a unity that truly honors those we loved and lost.

On a personal note, I remain humbled and grateful to still be here among congregants, family, friends and community members who share that place, time and memory of something so profound that happened to us all and changed us in the process. May their memories be a blessing to us forever.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers is the rabbi of Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh.

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