It has been a little over two weeks since a deranged madman came in and snuffed out the lives of 11 innocent, Jewish souls. I happened to be in Squirrel Hill that particular Shabbat (more on that below) and for days, I was pretty much in shock over both the massacre, and the reactions that bubbled up in its aftermath.
But more then anything, this terrible event has been a reckoning of sorts in regards to my Jewish identity and my relationship with the Jewish people. Why this had to come on the heels of such a tragedy, I do not know.
October 27, 2018
Since the twins have been born, I do not make it a point to go to Shabbat services. It is just too hard and too distracting to go and try to manage 3 babies on my own. However, the week prior, their grandmother contacted me and asked to babysit that weekend. I took her up on her offer and headed to Chabad of Squirrel Hill that morning.
The Chabad outreach minyan in Squirrel Hill is practically on the opposite side of the neighborhood compared to Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha. I arrived at shul at around 10 am. When I arrived I headed for the kiddush area to help set up the tables with Tova Feinman. She joked that she would not be the only woman on our side of the mechitza now (more on that later). When finished I headed into the sanctuary to catch the tail end of birchot kriyat shema, in the middle area of the seats. More women filed in eventually but none sat in front of me. It was a standard Shabbat service really. With the exception of two things….
#1 – The First Oddity
Before the bracha for the second….or maybe third aliyah, there was some discussion around the bimah, of which I heard the rabbi say “Yes…you can say something now”. An elderly gentleman with a thick foreign accent was talking disjointedly about how almost went somewhere, but instead he came to Chabad and Hashem meant for him to be here. I could tell that he was flustered but also he was talking to the men’s side, so I really didn’t follow. He/they may have bentched ha-gomel...I’m not sure. My take on the entire thing was that sometime in the previous week, he had some sort of scare, and was thankful that he avoided any serious harm.
#2 – The Second Oddity
At some point I stepped out to go to the restroom. When walking down the corridor past the front doors, there were two men standing there, looking at the doors and having a discussion about how to lock them. I thought this was odd, but they did not have any hint of alarm or stress in their voices. Then one remarked “Well, for now it looks like I’m the security”; which I thought was odd too…because outside of the yomim noraim, we don’t have security at the shul.
Now, I should back up a bit and say that this particular synagogue was and Orthodox one; which means the Sabbath is strictly observed. That means no electronics…no TV…not even microphones or cell phones are used. Word of the shooting came to us mainly by word of mouth (first) and then later from those who mingled among us who either saw something on TV themselves or talked to others who saw (or heard) the media reports. There was really no sense of danger or panic.
Until Kiddush time.
I had actually already taken my plate and took my standard selections of Tam-Tam crackers, smoked salmon, the rabbi’s parve cholent (which is yummy…and this is coming from someone who can’t stand cholent), hummus and egg salad. My little cup of Rashi wine was doled out to me for kiddush. I saw across from a woman that I had friendly conversations with prior. She seemed distracted and upset. It quickly came out that she was debating even coming to synagogue that day. That she was trying to think of people that she knew and if they were affected by what happened. Then I asked, “What happened”.
That’s when it came tumbling out that there was a shooting at the Tree of Life. “The one in Pittsburgh?”. I just was in shock really. But it was a slow creeping shock. While the my shock was developing, she posed a question to me…pressing me really, and asked “Why did you convert?”. Ugh…I tried to come up with an easy answer to that…but there really isn’t one, so I responded, “Well, it’s complicated really. I just felt a pull to Judaism…ever since I was a little girl.” She cut me off and just repeated, “But why did you convert?”. I was lost in that I didn’t know how to answer her any better then what I said before. I don’t if I just re-phrased what I said before or formulated some other type of small-talky answer. She then went on about her own family…about how either one of her parents or perhaps it was a grandparent who had to convert in her family.
Then my shock began to drive me into action. I came to the realization that at that moment, was separated from my children. My #1 priority became reuniting with them. So I collected up my plate and tossed it and headed to the door. On the way out a tall, ‘very Lubavitch-looking’ gentleman gave me the most kind, calming, ‘Good Shabbos’, with a nod…holding the door open for me. I hope I said something back…but I really don’t recall.
The next 24 hours was just a barrage of people checking to see if I was ok…and me also trying to find out exactly what transpired. It was a mish-mash of bad feelings all over. Bad feelings about not knowing who was affected. Bad feelings about the fact that no one in my family or outside of my miniscule circle of Jewish friends even know the name of the synagogue I attend. Bad feelings about what drove this madman to do what he did. Like it isn’t bad enough being Black in this country…now we have ‘fellow Americans’ living among us who want to gun down Jews.
But never, ever did I feel apart from my Jewish community. Not in those moments. Never did I feel like I wanted to run away and not mourn with them. Although it may have seemed that way…no. That was just me giving in to motherly instincts.
And yes, I am glad my boys were not with me that particular Shabbat. Although I also realize that there are plenty other ‘fellow Americans’ who detest them…and everything they represent. 🙁
I was up bright and early on Sunday to see the list of the victims. Initially it was just names. Then slowly, pictures began to emerge (in some cases, the wrong picture).
It is really strange how the brain works. Daniel Stein’s picture was one of the first ones that I saw. But I did not realize who he was until I saw Dr. Gottfried’s picture. That is when I realized that they were New Light congregants. When I was pregnant with my oldest, I was debating joining a conservative congregation. New Light was one of my ‘go to’ places for Shabbat. Great rabbi and rebbetzin, and everyone seemed approachable and nice. Dan Stein especially used to make it a point to greet me and have a seat by me and encourage me to come back. And even though I discovered pretty quickly that Conservative Judaism was not my thing…I pains me to say that never, ever has anyone treated me like that in any Orthodox synagogue that I have attended. In Orthodox homes…yes. But in the synagogues…no. I’m not talking about a cordial “Good Shabbos” and an invite to lunch. No. I mean the “Hey – we would love for you to join our kehilla…” type of conversation.
Now why is that?
Have We Learned & What Does The Future Hold?
In my humble opinion I think I spend too much time fretting about my acceptance in the Jewish community. The real or perceived side-eye that I get from my Jewish peers will never be enough to shield me from the bullets of a crazed White supremacist.
When the dust settled, I realized that I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. However in spite at how put off I may be feeling in regards to getting the 3rd degree from shul security going forward…in the end, my heart was still broken. And maybe that is all the acceptance that I need right now.