Culture & Society

Community Before Politics

On the second anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting tragedy, it’s important to remember what’s truly important

Image Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images News

Two years ago, sitting at the funeral service for one of the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, which had just occurred here in Pittsburgh, I was jolted by both the presence and the words of the congregation’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers. His strength was awe-inspiring; in the days after miraculously surviving the shooting, he was able to lead the funerals of many of his fellow congregants. As for his words, Myers spoke about the sacrifice of the martyrs who had died that day. They were martyrs, he said, because they died practicing their faith.

Martyrs. This was a word I never thought I would hear in my own community in Pittsburgh. It was a word that belonged to Afghanistan, where I had spent so much time over the past 15 years chronicling the war. When, two years ago today, violence came to Tree of Life—the synagogue around the corner from my current house and where I grew up and celebrated my Bat Mitzvah—the feeling was painfully familiar. In Kabul, terrorism had robbed me of mentors and people about whom I cared so deeply.

The experience of the Afghan war would prepare me for all of this, I had thought. I was wrong.

I grew up in Pittsburgh and returned to the city a decade ago. Rather than rejoining Tree of Life, I joined another synagogue down the road, which seemed more vibrant and had more young families. A few months before the shooting, a dear friend from my childhood at Tree of Life visited from out of town with his family. I said to him, “Why does your mom still go to Tree of Life? She should join my synagogue. Tree of Life is dying.” These are words I still deeply regret. His mother perished at Tree of Life that morning two years ago.

In the days after the massacre that killed 11 people praying, the world opened its arms and embraced all of us. A few weeks later, I was attending Saturday morning services at my synagogue. Going to services for me became so sorrowful. One Shabbat morning, a trauma psychologist who descended on our community could see my pain. She pulled me aside. She listened and explained that while I had experienced such violence before, Afghanistan for me had been a choice. I could go in and out when I chose and leave the violence behind. Now it had come into my community in a way that I could not control. Letting go of this idea of control was exactly why faith and community became more important to me than ever before. I also felt a new sense of guilt for not better understanding the pain of my Afghan friends.

The massacre that came to our community was political. A white supremacist believed the Jewish community was promoting illegal immigration. The response of many in the community to this event was also political. Friends responded with a renewed sense of activism. Much of it centered on President Trump, whose words they believed were responsible for this violence.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. Image Credit: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers took a great deal of heat from many in the community for meeting President Trump at Tree of Life, in those dark days after the shooting. In a powerful community-wide service days later, he explained his decision and said that he would stand aside from politics. The only enemy he would decry, he said, is the “H” word: hate. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have wandered into his services and sermons online. There is no soaring rhetoric, no calls to action, just an effort to teach the important lessons of our faith and the power of community.

People grieve in different ways. The reactions of my neighbors and friends were diverse. Most of my friends embraced social activism and protest. When President Trump came to Pittsburgh a few days after the shooting, they protested his visit in the streets. Some started anti–gun violence crusades and other political causes. Meanwhile, sermons in my community became more politically charged. They focused on gun violence and seemed to react to the latest headline, whether it was a school shooting or children in cages at the border. Many asked, “How can we stand silent to politics in the face of pain that has scarred us so deeply?”

Most focused their rage on President Trump. They believed that his rhetoric was responsible for this violence. Others pointed to attacks on Jews in New York City and said that the causes of anti-Semitism were much deeper and more systemic. Although the voices of the protesters and activists are the loudest, there has been no uniformity—even among families of those that were killed—on issues ranging from the death penalty to gun rights.

As the voices of the politically active became louder, I wanted to retreat from it all. I have a PhD in political science but became quickly tired of politics. Political activism requires a sense of certainty, and these days, I have only questions. I have no certainty about the cause of this violence and many other things. In fact, I do not want to think about why it all happened. I just feel an incredible sense of sadness for the people we lost. I mourn for the loss of innocence in our community. For me, this sadness is like a fog that never lifts.

As clarion calls for political action became louder, religious life became political. In other words, it became like everything else. The more religious leaders focus on political and social activism, the more dispensable they become—not because these things are unimportant, but because when religions focus solely on political and social issues, they become less unique, less sacred and more mundane. Membership in congregations has plummeted over a generation. Jews are less likely than most other US religious groups to attend services regularly.

It saddened me so much how politics started gnawing at our community fabric. I saw how neighbors of 40 years stopped speaking to one another because of differing views on President Trump and his responsibility for the massacre. One family celebrated Trump’s position on Israel and the prominent role of his Jewish children, Jared and Ivanka, while just next door, views on the president were the opposite: he was personally responsible for our pain. Not long ago a neighbor confessed that she was thinking of cutting off ties to her daughter because of her decision to support President Trump in the upcoming elections.

The massacre that day took more from me than those who we lost. It robbed me of a sense of community, something that is central to the beliefs and practice of Judaism. In Genesis (2:18) we read of the importance of community in the Jewish faith: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

The politicization of so much in my community has caused me to retreat from communal life. While I hold so many of my friends and leaders dear, I have become exhausted from it all. At a time when I needed to turn my mind out from the tragedy and think about the bigger issues of life, politics became ubiquitous. Meanwhile, the pandemic has prompted me to explore new communities online. I keep returning to Jeffrey Myers at Tree of Life.

Rabbi David Wolpe noted that American Jews no longer have common Jewish heroes. Once we had people we looked up to, such as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The only remaining hero alive today is Natan Sharanksy, a Jewish refusenik who raised global awareness about persecution of the Jews in the Soviet Union. Jews have some heroes they share with many other Americans, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Albert Einstein. But they loom large for their secular achievements, achievements that are not directly linked to their Jewish identity. Of course, this is still a good thing, since it speaks to the incredible acceptance of Jews into modern American life—an acceptance that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. But Jewish heroes whose achievements and courage are directly linked to their Jewish identity—people like David Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir—are largely absent from today’s Jewish life.

But there is, I believe, one new Jewish religious hero in our midst: Jeffrey Myers. We should look to him as someone who has united many because he eschewed politics and put community needs first. He survived that day and used his position to speak about how we can grow as individuals and live better. His is a quiet voice, but his actions and example are what will sustain us not as a social movement, but as a people; not as a political force, but as a community. If the Tree of Life shooting is the new symbol of American anti-Semitism, Myers’s example might just be the best way to fight it.

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