Even amid sadness, chances for blessing
I recently learned about the “Pittsburgh Left.” This refers not to a progressive political movement but to a genteel, albeit benignly illegal, traffic norm: as the light turns green, one allows the first oncoming car to make a left. It’s a small courtesy, for sure, but a special gesture that makes an impact on a visitor.
Last week, I was one of those visitors. In solidarity, I represented the Jewish community of Montreal at funerals for victims of Oct. 27’s terror attack, when an anti-Semite opened fire at Congregation Tree of Life during Shabbat morning prayers. My visit to Pittsburgh witnessed a great deal of pain. I encountered the fear of a community whose sacred space was violated; the personal loss of individuals whose relatives or friends were murdered; the stress of a small Jewish community thrust into a political storm and media frenzy, all the while tending to their dead. Jewish tradition teaches that, even in moments of sadness, the opportunity for blessing emerges. In the days following the massacre, I was overwhelmed by the many kindnesses I encountered. Messages of condolence quickly arrived. Neighbours knocked on my door to express sympathies; political leaders called and emailed notes of solidarity; a Muslim friend from Quebec City, whom I had reached out to with sympathies following last year’s attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, reciprocated. These kind sentiments seemed to intuit our Jewish community’s experience of the Pittsburgh attack as a deeply personal one. Simply put, the victims were murdered for one reason: they were Jewish. Therefore, it was an attack on every Jew. In attending funerals in Pittsburgh, I learned the beauty of a life must not be extinguished by the tragic circumstances of death.
I learned Irving Younger was the synagogue’s unofficial greeter, standing at the back of the sanctuary and handing prayer books to those who entered.
I learned Joyce Fienberg, raised and educated in Ontario, was a consummate giver who would quietly perform countless good deeds for others.
I learned true kindness prevails in Pittsburgh. People seemed to just want to do something, to help in some way, to alleviate the pain ever so slightly. For some, help meant financial support. A local Muslim community raised tens of thousands dollars to cover funeral costs; two students from Parkland High School, survivors of February’s attack, called in a donation of $54 to the Tree of
Life Congregation (Jews commonly give charity in multiples of 18, the number that traditionally connotes life).
For others, kindness meant doing anything in their power to help out. My flight to Pittsburgh involved a brief layover at Dulles International Airport, and a mechanical delay in Montreal jeopardized this connection. As I discussed my options with a desk agent (after we had deplaned to allow work to be done), the plane’s first officer overheard our conversation. “Where are you trying to go?” he asked. As I answered “Pittsburgh,” I saw his eyes look up at my kippah. I answered his unspoken question. “I’m a rabbi, travelling in solidarity, and to offer comfort to the victims’ families.” He said, “I’ll see what I can do.” He submitted the request that the connecting flight wait for me; he changed our arrival gate to be right next to the Pittsburgh flight; and he offered me words of comfort and support as I hurried off of his plane to make my connection.
There is, undeniably, evil in the world. I strongly believe that, while not every situation is good, good can come from any situation. The killing of 11 innocent worshippers last Shabbat is an undeniable tragedy; the many acts of compassion that followed this terrible day will be foundations of the healing process.