Tree of Life: Words from a Pittsburgh Jew at Brandeis

On October 27, 2018, in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, PA, before 10 a.m., a man came into the Tree of Life synagogue. He shot and killed 11 people while injuring others including local officers.

The victims:

Joyce Fienberg (75), Richard Gottfried (65), Rose Mallinger (97), Jerry Rabinowitz (66), Cecil Rosenthal (59), David Rosenthal (54), Bernice Simon (84), Sylvan Simon (86), Daniel Stein (71), Melvin Wax (87), Irving Younger (69).

I was born in Pittsburgh on January 7, 2000. I am a twin, 3:16 pm and 3:17 pm, respectively.

I went to Liberty elementary school K-5 in Shadyside, Jewish day school Community Day School (CDS) in Squirrel Hill for middle school, Taylor Allderdice in Squirrel Hill for high school.

Brandeis University class of 2022.

I was asked in kindergarten if I believed in God.

I said I did not know.

I did not grow up in an obviously Jewish household.

I did not have Shabbat meals, I did not go to synagogue, I did not believe in God because I did not know what God was when I was just Madeline.

I was a teeny, awkward, nerdy child in public school singing Christmas songs, not knowing God.

What, who, why, how, nothing.

I didn’t have to nor do I need to now, and yet I do.

 

I began to know God at my synagogue in Pittsburgh, Beth Shalom Congregation.

A few blocks from Tree of Life.

My father’s Bar Mitzvah was there, you know. Details.

I sought out God on my own terms.

I wanted to answer that question I was asked in kindergarten.

I wanted to feel, see, breathe my faith because no one was telling me to do that.

My spirituality was and is my choice.

My spirituality is how I connect to Judaism.

I wanted to know God.

I wanted to know God and I wanted to feel my faith and the words of prayer sweep me off my feet.

I wanted to feel like my mind is in the sky, bashamayim.

I wanted to stand in shul (synagogue) with my prayer shawl, my tallit wrapped around my body and covering me in security knowing I am surrounded by people with that same intention, kavanah, that I have.

I wanted to close my eyes during the silent Amidah and have a personal conversation with HaShem, with God.

I wanted to pray so loud, so proud because I could.

I wanted to sit with my rabbi and have a conversation about HOW God exists on a random weekday after school in Squirrel Hill, referencing Abraham Joshua Heschel and other scholars while pulling from our own knowledge because we could and can still relate to our Judaism, to our faith, and to God.

I wanted to do all of this until I started feeling sick every time I thought of the gunshots that went off in my synagogue.

In my neighborhood.

In my city.

 

This is not just some event.

 

This is my safe space.

This is my safest space.

Was…

 

Now,

All I can think of is Saturday morning on campus when at 11 a.m.

I got a text. “Shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh”.

I was meeting someone for coffee, all I was thinking of how much I wanted chai and a bagel and cream cheese.

#justjewthings you know?

But when I saw the text…

God.

 

I ran over to an empty hallway, bending over and falling to the ground and weeping loud, thick tears I had never cried in my life.

I ran into the bathroom to hide myself even though I had nothing to hide from 500 miles away - boy have I said that so many times since then - and I locked myself in a stall.

I heard my friend’s voice call for my name, I ran to her and held onto her for dear life saying with tears blurring my vision “there was a shooting in Pittsburgh!”

I paced around the bathroom as people went about their normal day while I sat on the floor trembling with fear, calling my friends my mentors my teachers my classmates everyone and anyone I could because anyone could have been there that morning.

The week before there was a Bar Mitzvah.

On October 27 there was a baby naming.

The baby is okay.

No children were killed,

And yet still 11 people were killed,

At the Tree of Life synagogue.

Correction: Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash congregations.

11 lives.

 

I couldn’t stop crying all day.

I had to sit with friends because they were scared and wanted to be sure I was safe.

I was scared.

I didn’t feel safe.

But what was I supposed to be saved from when 11 people and more could not be protected because a man representing the worst of humanity burst into this house of worship during peaceful...Saturday morning prayer, Tefillah, and broke souls apart.

 

I couldn’t stop crying all week, I can’t stop crying now as I’m writing this because nothing feels real.

What is reality when you just left home 2 months ago to go pursue a life but now you feel like someone has pressed the pause button on your life and all you want to do is press end.  

What is real when you see a Jewish community of so many you KNOW, mourning together, sharing prayers and tears and hugs together and I feel I am not a part of that though right now that is all I need.

All I need, all I want is to be with my people and I feel I am not there,

that there is this barrier,

that my Judaism is trapped within the walls of the synagogue.

My synagogue.

I don’t even know if I will get it back even when I do go home.

All I need is to be home but right now I am getting left behind in the healing.

Pittsburgh I am here where are you?

Pittsburgh I am here where are you? Pittsburgh I am here where are you?  

Pittsburgh,

I am here,

But why aren’t you here for me?

 

I’ve felt God. I’ve believed in God.

God…..

I can’t see God anymore.

I went to a chapel the night of the shooting and no words of prayer were on my lips.

I saw my prayer shawl and prayer books sitting on my desk in my dorm room and I could not touch them.

I can’t see God anymore.

God,

I am here,

But why…..

WHERE ARE YOU?!

 

*silence*

 

 

I am a college student.

I am a college student at Brandeis.

I am a college student at Brandeis and yet I feel I do not belong here.

I feel I do not belong here and I somehow feel that my pain is not being recognized.

What that means I do not know but I do not know what to feel when I feel everything and nothing at the same time.

I bent over crying barely able to breathe at the vigil in Boston.

I told my friend standing beside me “they don’t know!” But what were those people supposed to know?

What did I want from them at the time?

Was my anger really at them or at the fact that I feel I should have been in Pittsburgh and yet I am here at Brandeis going through my day when back home the air is so heavy life itself is slowed down?

Even my young self who did not know what God is has a heavy heart.

I have a heavy heart, a heavy soul right now.

I am scared.

I am scared for my young self who grew to be so proud of her Judaism.

I am scared for myself imagining that I will never be able to say “I am from Pittsburgh” with the same connotation again.

I am scared for my future child that will have to live in a world where the worst of humanity roams the streets.

 

Anti-semitism is alive and well in the United States and around the world,

And yet,

I am scared we still aren’t seeing this.

 

There is no one good thing I can tell to whoever is reading this to take away because I don’t have any one good thing.

But what I shall emphasize, if anything for me:

Pittsburgh is in pain.

People are in pain.

I am in pain and just because I am not in Pittsburgh that does not make the pain any less.

I am in pain and just because I am not in Pittsburgh physically that does not mean I am not there.

I am in pain and just because the president came to my city that doesn’t mean I wanted him there.

I am in pain now and I will be in pain for a while.

I don’t know if I’ll find God again the way I did before but I must have hope.

I must have hope and I must hold onto my faith, my Judaism because regardless of how hopeless I feel in this moment that does not mean hope is gone, nor does it mean my Judaism and my belief in HaShem, in God ever left.

That part of myself, of Madeline of Maddie whatever you know me as is still there and I am still me.

 

I was born in Pittsburgh on January 7, 2000.

3:16 pm.

I have a twin.

3:17 pm.

I was asked in kindergarten if I believed in God.

I said I did not know.

I do not know.

 

Well,

I know now.

I was sitting in the Boston Public Library November 3 - one week after the shooting - drinking a chai latte.

I took the campus shuttle in the middle of a Shabbat afternoon.

Shabbat wasn’t Shabbat then.

I laughed.

I smiled.

I was sitting in the Boston Public Library and I felt genuine contentment.

I didn’t want to smile, you see.

I wanted to cry and every time I felt some joy within me it felt wrong, it felt vile, it felt scary.

But is it scarier to allow yourself to feel some joy in the midst of deep, deep sorrow or to no longer be safe in your own mind?

I have to choose to live no matter how much I convince myself not to.

I have to choose to live because I have that choice and therefore I will not apologize for smiling on November 2.

I have to choose to live because in that moment my soul felt if only a little lighter,

even when everything came crashing into me like a train that same evening.

Even when every day is still hard, still scary,

But I have to get out of bed.

I have to choose to live.

I was sitting in the Boston Public Library 500 miles away from Pittsburgh and for one second, one second I felt,

Okay.

What okay means even I don’t know but I felt it.

I felt something, and if that feeling is all I have that’s what I’ve got.

 

I was asked in kindergarten if I believed in God.

I said I did not know.

I know now.

I knew since I saw God in the sun’s reflection that day.

 

On October 27, 2018, in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, PA, before 10 a.m., a man came into the Tree of Life synagogue, shooting and killing 11 people and injuring others including local officers.

Joyce Fienberg (75), Richard Gottfried (65), Rose Mallinger (97), Jerry Rabinowitz (66), Cecil Rosenthal (59), David Rosenthal (54), Bernice Simon (84), Sylvan Simon (86), Daniel Stein (71), Melvin Wax (87), Irving Younger (69).

 

Go to pray.

Go to hug the ones you love and care for.

Go be happy but also let yourself feel every other emotion that is so valid.

Go find your safe spaces.

Go close your eyes and be immersed in the words of prayer and let your spirit be uplifted if that is what gives you faith.

Go be safe in a world where sometimes that may seem impossible.

 

Say their names.

Remember them.

Do what those 11 people now cannot.

 

#pittsburghstrong

#squirrelhillstrong