By Max Saltman
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah…
May His great Name grow exalted and be sanctified…
These are the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, an Aramaic prayer recited by Jews when remembering departed loved ones. This week, in synagogues and private homes in Pittsburgh, across the United States, and around the world, Jews will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in remembrance of the 11 people murdered at the Tree of Life Congregation on Saturday. I will be among them.
Last month, I attended Yom Kippur services with a Sewanee professor. He had very generously allowed me to stay at his home in Nashville and accompany him to the West End Synagogue, where we prayed and fasted with about 100 others on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. As we approached the synagogue from the sidewalk, I couldn’t help but notice the armed police officers standing at the doorway, and the police cruisers parked in front of the synagogue, and other officers monitoring cars pulling into the parking lot.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked my professor. He explained to me that this synagogue had been targeted by various anti-semitic attacks throughout its history, including one incident when someone shot a bullet through the front door, hitting the wall behind the front desk. No one was hurt, but ever since, the police presence was considered an important precaution. The synagogue even has its own security coordinator.
As we took our seats before services started, the professor whispered to me that some of the congregants would most likely be armed in case of trouble. He pointed to one seated behind us. “Retired police officer,” he said, “definitely has a gun.”
I grew up going to Conservative synagogue similar to West End (and similar to Tree of Life) in Somerville, Massachusetts. I think it is safe to say that a firearm of any kind has never, ever crossed the threshold of my temple in the hands of a congregant. I mentioned this to my professor, and he replied that up North, we don’t need guns in temple. As he put it, we “actually have Jews there.” Meaning: the community is large enough that it isn’t as likely to be targeted. I agreed with him. We were both proven wrong on Saturday.
There are there definitely more Jews in Pittsburgh, a Northern city, than in Nashville. Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where Saturday’s shooting took place, is about 40 percent Jewish. The congregants of Tree of Life didn’t have police stationed at the synagogue when the shooting took place because they assumed, as I would have, that they didn’t need it. And are we so wrong to think that way?
Most Jews, my family included, came to America because we believed that this was a place where we wouldn’t be targeted for violence because of the way we worship. Little did my ancestors know that this was also a place where a rabid anti-semite, who regularly posts violent vitriol online, can own 21 guns legally, then use them to murder 11 people.
The President recently tweeted that perhaps if there had been armed guards at the synagogue, maybe 11 people wouldn’t have died. It’s the kind of thing that even he should know he shouldn’t have said, just as someone shouldn’t suggest that if the teachers had been armed in Parkland, those kids wouldn’t have died. Or if Anne Frank had been packing heat, she would have lived to see her diary published. We choose not to make these suggestions, not because they lack any sort of truth, but because they are callous, useless, and rude.
As my grandmother wrote to my family on Sunday, “In a subtle way he says the congregation is to blame because they didn’t take the right precautions. Not that the tone he has set for the country or the other ways he has demeaned people, minimized civility, and allowed openly racist and anti-semitic voices to flourish.”
Every day I remind myself of how lucky I am to have found Sewanee, a place where I can be Jewish and proud while also living entirely outside of my community. But now I feel somewhat uneasy. Because if it can happen in Squirrel Hill, it can happen anywhere.
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael. V’imru: Amein.
May He who makes peace in the Heights, may he make peace upon us all, and upon all of Israel. Now say: Amen.
May their memories be a blessing.