On This Tragic Shabbat: 11 Murdered by Anti-Semitic Terrorist at Pittsburgh Synagogue

In Jewish philosophy, the “Tree of Life” is emblematic of the wisdom of the Torah: “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate.”

Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

and all its paths are peace.

*

Today, an anti-Semetic terrorist killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Today is Shabbat, which began at sundown on Friday night and will last until sundown tonight. There was a baby-naming ceremony occurring at services today. The baby would have been eight days old. On the eighth day of this baby’s life, eleven people were murdered.

*

If you woke up this morning and heard “synagogue shooting” and thought in the period of time between seeing an out-of-context tweet and looking up the news “is this my synagogue” or “is this where my Mom was this morning.” If you felt some kind of guilty relief, tempered tragically by the awareness that for so many people the facts of the matter confirmed the worst, bringing no such relief.

*

JE Reich, a Brooklyn-based queer non-binary writer who attended, with their family, the Tree of Life synagogue, tweeted that “Waiting to hear who was injured and who was killed is a nightmare. The Jewish community is tight-knit in Pittsburgh; no matter who the victims are, they will be people we know.” JE’s step-dad was the executive director of the synagogue, a progressive conservative congregation.

*

When tragedies like this take place, we do our best to have a person write the story for Autostraddle who has a connection to the community targeted. Al Monts wrote about murder of African-American worshippers at Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel Church in 2015. Yvonne Marquez wrote about the mass murder of queer Latinx people at the Pulse Nightclub — the day it happened, two days later, and again on the anniversary.

Today, my turn came. I am terrified thinking of whose turn will come up next, or who will have another round. I am terrified knowing inevitably there will be a next time.

*

and

all

its

paths

are

peace.

*

What should come next — but may not, because these deaths occurred at a crime scene, which can complicate things — is that the bodies will be buried in plain pine boxes. There will be no embalming or cremation, in order to hasten the return of the body to the earth. There is a traditional ritual purification of the body that happens prior to burial, but that will not happen in this case because Jewish law states that Jews killed by non-Jews because they are Jewish be buried in the clothing they wore when they were killed. There are many interpretations as to why this is done — to preserve every drop of blood, to make a statement, to honor their sacrifice.

What will come next — what has already come next — is that our G-dforsaken President (and I mean that literally, now) will stand at a podium in front of a microphone and speak a variation on the philosophy that “the only thing that stops a man with a gun is another gun.”

What will come between now and the burial is “aninut.” Families will be left alone to grieve with each other and fully inhabit their grief.

What will come next — what is already coming next — is that the “alt-right” will continue thriving and growing and feeling empowered to hate people of color, to hate queer people, to hate Jews and Muslims and women. Our G-dforsaken President will fan the flames of this fire.

What will come next, after the burial and the se’udat havra’ah (meal of condolence), is that the parents, children, spouses and siblings of the deceased will sit shiva for seven days, preferably in the home of the deceased. Friends and family and strangers who knew the dead but not you will come by to give condolences. You will wear black and cover the mirrors. People will bring food. There will be so much food: kugels, stacks of deli meats and pre-sliced cheese beneath plastic crowns. Loaves of challah and rye bread. Lox, damp paper bags of bagels, several varieties of cream cheese. Some will end up being frozen for later, because it’s just too much. A neighbor will tell you to keep the casserole dish, it’s okay. Overly affectionate grandparents will embrace squirming, shellshocked children.

Republicans will push back against any gun control measures, even the most generous, eminently sensible ones, like banning automatic weapons or bump stocks.

Going forward, on the one-year anniversary of the death of their loved ones, family members will observe Yahrzeit. They will light a candle in honor of the dead that burns for 24 hours. They will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The weird thing about the Mourner’s Kaddish is that it does not mention death or dying. You usually learn or memorize the Mourner’s Kaddish before you learn Hebrew entirely, so if you don’t grow up speaking Hebrew, the Mourner’s Kaddish starts out to you as a child as a bizarre assemblage of sounds Then it grows up and becomes words, chanted in the same way every time. The Mourner’s Kaddish praises G-d, exalting and hallowing His name.

*

The official stance of the Conservative movement, which as aforementioned the Tree of Life synagogue is a part of, is accepting of LGBT Jews and pro-LGBT rights.

“People use my proper pronouns there, and I’ve been called to the Bima for aliyot during Torah services,” JE told me. Our recent reader survey found LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people more likely to identify as Jewish than members of any other organized religion. I mention this only to point out that there is a much larger segment of our community (8.2%) who feel a personal connection to today’s events than there are in non-LGBTQ communities (2%), and to be aware of that. It is also important to be aware that not all Jews are white, and that queer Jews of color, at this horrific moment in human history, are likely in need of extra support and comfort.

*

All day this Jewish folk song has been stuck in my head, because it’s called “The Tree of Life.” It’s one of the first ones you learn in Religious School because it’s simple and upbeat, and has only a few lyrics. It goes:

It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it
and all of its supporters are happy,
It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it
and all of its supporters are happy.
Shalom, shalom.
Shalom, Shalom.
Shalom.

Shalom, by the way, means “peace” and “hello” and “goodbye.” It means all of those things.

*

This is what will happen next, as per Genesis 4:10 — blood shed by murder will cry out to G-d from the ground.

Blood shed by murder will call out to G-d from the ground.

*

The injured, for whom we say the מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ: Paul Leger, 70. A 61-year-old  woman, a 55-year-old man, a 27-year-old male police officer and a 40-year-old male SWAT officer.

*

These are the names of the dead:

Daniel Stein, 71

Joyce Fienberg, 75

Richard Gottfried, 65

Rose Mallinger, 97

Jerry Raminowitz, 66

Brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54

Husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86

Melvin Wax, 88

Irving Younger, 69

*

And as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2645 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. I am trying to find the text of a poem from Nice Jewish Girls with the mourner’s kaddish in it but I can’t find it and I’m sad and I don’t know what to do. We say kaddish so many times throughout the service. The congregation says it and the hazzan says it and the mourners say it. I want to say it now too.
    Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei raba.

  2. My university is less than five minutes from the synagogue. The entire community is reeling. Tree of Life is Pittsburgh’s oldest synagogue and Squirrel Hill is a majority Jewish neighborhood. Pretty much everyone has some connection with L’Simcha. Blood banks are swamped with donors and people are trying to support each other through grief but no one expected such a horrible anti Semitic hate crime to occur in what has always been a safe place for Jewish people. It’s devastating.

  3. I am sick, half-crying, and enraged. We have a queer Halloween party to go to tonight. I don’t feel like partying, but I will go because it will be good to be with friends. I’m lousy at costume ideas but tonight I will wear my t-shirt from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (New York’s big queer synagogue) and a set of rainbow suspenders. I will be a moving target.

  4. As a fellow Jew & memeber of the lgbtq community thank you for this Riese. I am tearing up right now, but also learned a few things I didn’t know, like the one about the clothing.

    In related new the shooter was a user of Gab(mentioned right before the shooting his plans), the alt-right twitter, and after the shooting PayPal said they are no longer supporting the platform and people are pressuring Microsoft to drop them from their Azure services. Less they can spread their rhetoric the better.

  5. I appreciate that this is here.

    My family came to this country not because of a hard-on for eagles, but because they thought it was the best place for them at that time. I know that when this changes, they would absolutely want me to leave. Jews can’t afford sentimentality.

    For me, that time is drawing ever nearer.

  6. And:

    To those who spent the last two years telling us to be quiet, that we weren’t affected by white supremacy, that we were selfish, that we didn’t belong in justice work, today you should wake up. Hush your mouth of hollow words. Apologize, reflect, and amplify OUR voices.

    To those who weakly condemn this act but cannot bring themselves to utter the words “Jewish” or “anti-Semitism”, for shame. What are you really fighting?

  7. This was beautiful, and it broke me completely.
    One of the things I love about the Mourner’s Kaddish is that it is both public and interactive–you are amidst your community, who witness your grief and respond at certain parts of the prayer. In times like these, it’s hard for me to be away from my family and the congregations I belong to.
    Which is why I’m so grateful for this piece. Autostraddle is, as ever, my community, and also a place where being a queer Jew, in whatever form, is celebrated. A place where we can be witnessed, and I can send my love to everyone. May their memories be a blessing.

    • I dunno. When Autostraddle didn’t write about what happened at Chicago Dyke March, that’s when I realized they weren’t my community, they didn’t have my back. That as a queer Jew, I don’t really have any community.

      I get they were probably trying to avoid setting off the But Israel crazies, but I before that I thought AS would do the right thing, not the easy thing.

      Once they were silent about Jews being evicted from their queer community because they dared to be Jewish in their own terms, I knew I was alone.

  8. My heart has felt heavy all day, and reading this beautiful piece brought me to tears. Especially the song, which I always loved, so upbeat and full of spirit. I was at CBST for Shabbat services last night. I hadn’t been to any service (holiday or Shabbat) since Yom Kippur, over a month ago. I prayed for our country. I prayed for peace. I prayed for love. At Shabbat dinner after the service, I laughed with old and new friends. I flirted. I felt so attached to my queerness and Judaism. I felt safe and seen and loved. Today, I feel scared and sad and numb, as it’s difficult for me to fully process what happened. I feel horrible that I’m not surprised. Every day seems like a new attack. My Oma was a Holocaust survivor. My grandparents came to America because it was safe, and their pre-WWII Eastern European homes were not. I do not feel safe or seen in this country.

    I work at a Jewish community center. I work with rabbis and the Jewish community. I’m having a Bat Mitzvah in January. I love being Jewish. I love the culture and the traditions and my connection to G-d. I love being a queer Jew.

    I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m not surprised.

  9. Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. His house stands three blocks from the synagogue where today’s shooting took place and that little diorama of his community represented the community where this occurred

  10. Riese this was…this was perfect. I am a Squirrel Hill Jew – lived blocks from there until I was 18. I don’t know if I’m reacting to this news as a Jew, or as a Pittsburgher, or as a human. All. I don’t know.

    I grew up with JE, and it’s true, the Squirrel Hill community is so strong and well-connected. Everyone I know is safe. I don’t know that everyone I know is safe. I know people in my community are grieving. I know everyone is, and I don’t know who it is yet. I wish I were home to go to shiva.

    But also, the shul I grew up at is just down the street, and I have a horrible, perfect image of how it would have happened – which doors and which services and where he would have barricaded himself. Ira would have been at the entrance to the sanctuary where he would have come in, Sarita would have been greeting at the doors, or my friend’s grandmother, or my mom. That’s maybe a Jew thing. Could have been anywhere, was just my home today.

  11. מחר וועלן זיי איבערלעבן
    ‏- We will outlive them.

    I’m visiting Germany right now to commemorate the 80th anniversary of my Jewish family being deported from there to Poland, where many of them were killed. It’s happening again. I’m sad and terrified, for you in the US and for all of us.

  12. I wish I could give everyone that has been affected by this a hot cup of coffee/tea/hot cocoa and their favorite comfort food. I wish I could sit with each of you, listen to you, hold your hand (if you’re comfortable with that), and just be there to support you. If anyone needs/wants support, I’m here.

  13. Thank you for creating a space and forum for queer Jewish folk here, Riese. I’m so grateful that this exists, and for your words, perfect as ever. Love, solidarity, and rage from London. x

  14. Thanks Riese for the beautiful piece.

    I live in Pittsburgh, and I work as a Recreational Therapist at an Assisted Living facility in Squirrel Hill. Yesterday morning I was sitting in Shul with some of my residents when we got the news.

    The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is open, kind and giving.

  15. I’m so often grateful to Autostraddle for being a place that makes me feel seen and welcome as a queer person in this world. I forget sometimes that it is ALSO a place that makes me feel seen and welcome as a specifically queer and Jewish person in this world. The survey results that showed how many Jews there are here; Vanessa’s articles about how to queer the Jewish holidays; Riese, so many of your articles about your family and growing up; and then times like this.

    In the comments section of the survey results where you wrote about the high proportion of Jews here at Autostraddle, I wrote to thank you for being a place where queer Jews can feel safe in a world that feels a lot less safe for us than it did only a few years ago. I want to reiterate that feeling now. So many of us are reeling right now. But I’m so thankful that we have this space where we can not just be queer, or Jewish, but both at once.

    Thank you.

    • You put into words so much of what I wanted to say but better. So I will just add my own thank yous to Riese for writing this one, and for AS for being a place I can read (and read comments) and feel companionship with other readers.

  16. Thank you, Riese. It has been surreal to see so many people going about their lives as if nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, I keep imagining this happening in my own Jewish community. Last night, I was able to go to a Havdallah vigil held by my congregation. We davened mariv and sang niggunim and lit Yahrzeit candles and cried. Then I got home and texted other Jewish friends who I haven’t spoken to recently, just to check in.

    עולם חסד יבנה

  17. Thank you. I live in a city similar in size and conservatism to Pittsburgh and we go to services regularly, my kid goes to a Jewish preschool and we go to the JCC to exercise/play so this hits pretty close to home. We are physically present in these institutions almost daily. And if anything happened we would be awfully vulnerable (this man was already a monster, but to murder people in their 90s, wow). Also with a preschooler and newborn it’s so hard to physically get to one of the events happening in town so reading this feels like a healing balm.

    • Also sheesh I have barely had time to think because- life with very young children- and now that I wrote out how often we are in these places it’s making me lightheaded and nauseous. Oof

  18. I’m pulling this out from a comment above because I want it to be seen. It’s so great that so many people here feel AS supports them in their Jewishness and their queerness. But I wonder, how?

    Finding a queer community, largely through AS, saved my life. I could be myself for the first time in my life. I flourished.

    Except…through those years I noticed that I talked about some parts of myself, but I kept quiet about others. I had a feeling they wouldn’t be well-received. I went ahead and kissed the girl who told me that she loved Bernie’s platform but she didn’t think a Jew could be a fair president. I bit my tongue with the bisexual friend who proudly fought bi invisibility, yet told me anti-Semitism isn’t really a big deal because Jews can just pretend not to be Jewish. The activist I admired who told me my Jews Against Trump sign was important “so people can see that not all Jews are rich Trump lovers.” Etc.

    These are all AS community members, by the way. They’ve all been to A-Camp.

    And then, the events of Chicago Dyke March happened. Three Jews were kicked out because they displayed Jewish stars. You know, the number-one unequivocal symbol of Judaism. People tried to make it about Israel, but to me, that in itself is the problem.

    And Autostraddle, and the rest of my community, did nothing. At best. Others jumped on the But Israel bandwagon and condemned the Jewish women for doing their Judaism wrong. I suppose AS was trying to not aggravate the But Israel crowd, but they’ve certainly reported on events similar.

    I was devastated. But I wasn’t surprised. I thought of those experiences. I thought about how Heather Hogan’s piece about Charlottesville didn’t mention the explicit anti-Semitism there. About how all those discussions of Wonder Woman had to have a disclaimer on them because so many people started frothing about Gal Gadot. About the poster who hijacked a thread about Ruby Rose as Batwoman to spout bizarre racial theories about Jews, ignoring all the Jews correcting her, and stopped by almost no one.

    After Dyke March, what had been implicit was made explicit. I didn’t feel at home as Jew in the queer community. I felt like I’d only be welcome if I did my Jewish identity within someone else’s parameters, if I passed their tests. And f*ck that. OTOH, I’ve always been just too f*cking queer for the Jewish community. This Rosh Hashana all the years of sideways looks and little snubs culminated in the delightful experience of being removed from the women’s restroom.

    So, for those of you who feel fully supported in all your identities here, bless. I’m happy for you. But I don’t know how you feel that way.

    Tl;dr is, please don’t ignore anti-Semitism in our own little world, and progressive movements at large. It’s there and it’s largely unchecked and many queer Jews feel like we have no home or community.

  19. Also! For anyone, Jewish or not, who wants to educate themselves about what anti-Semitism is, what it looks like, and how you can fight it, this is a great resource.

    It’s really interesting because anti-Semitism has a lot in common with other prejudices, notable racism, but is also not an exact analogue. Short version:

    “[Anti-Semitism] allows Jews success … because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for peoples’ rage, it works even more smoothly when Jews are allowed some success, and can be perceived as the ones ‘in charge’ by other oppressed groups.” Anti-Semitism, in this way, functions differently from other forms of oppression. Although through most of history, Jews have had neither power or privilege in the societies in which they lived; the times and places when we have had success have served as both cause for hatred and proof, to the anti-Semitic mind, that the conspiracy theories are correct.

    • Thank you for writing on this thread, and for the pamphlet, which is the best thing I’ve seen on the subject. Thank you especially because you’ve caused me to stop and reflect really critically on some lazy and thoughtless things I’ve said (I’m thinking especially of conversations about the recent UK Labour party anti-semitism accusations). Thank you for providing a resource which will help me do better.

  20. I waited to comment because I wanted to leave space for those here who are most affected, for those for whom this goes straight to your innermost hearts.

    I see your grieving, your fear, your anger. I see you.

    I see the love and care that Riese has brought, has carried, holding it gently, has offered here as a gift. Knowing that mourning has rent the fabric of Jewish community, of Jewish queer community, of her community.

    I see the various ways you express your love for your culture, your faith, your community, your family. The ways in which it’s complicated. The ways in which it’s simple. The ways in which you fight. The ways in which you protect yourselves as best you can. Every way you bring more to the world by being. It matters. You matter.

    I hold space for you. I mourn.

    May you all find comfort and support <3.

  21. I also hesitated to intrude in a space that others need to grieve. But I want to leave a comment here to say that your grief reverberates, and will not be met with silence.

    You deserve to be seen in the fullness of who you are, in your queerness and your Judaism. You deserve to be listened to and lifted up. You deserve people who will fight beside you. You deserve a community that will lift the burden of confronting white nationalist terror from you. You deserve so much better.

  22. Riese, thank you for this. As soon as I heard the news, I put the link in the Autostraddle slack thread because I knew we would want to write about this. I knew I needed to read your words, because I couldn’t form my own. My mom told me of all the things she has read about the event, this is the only piece that brought her to tears. Same. Thank you for holding the space for us, for making the space for us, for making me feel safe and loved here and for making me feel like this is where I can (and want to) turn to grieve, mourn, and hold one another. This is a beautiful tribute to the lives of our fellow Jews. Thank you for writing it when you, too, were in shock, when you were also feeling sad, scared, and broken.

    I love you. I wish I could be with all of you on Shabbat next week.

  23. Thank you for this. It’s very well-done and meaningful. I don’t even know what to say so I hope you don’t mind if I blurt some thoughts and feelings down here.

    I’m transgender and Jewish and I feel like everything in the past week or so has hit me all at once. And the worst part is that none of it is surprising to me. It all just fits with my experiences of transphobia and anti-Semitism. Once of my trans non-Jewish friends offered me support “now that anti-Semitism is lethal in America” when its always been lethal, and I’ve known that it’s lethal since I was a kid. Like none of my cis-straight friends talked about the anti-trans memo. I feel like I’m in two different worlds barely knowing a handful of people in the same spot and I just.

    How do people always miss signs of hate toward other groups until something big and horrible happens? Will this only get worse?

    Sometimes it feels like the world can never even go in the direction of Tikkun Olam.

  24. I went with my Jewish partner to a synagogue yesterday to a huge gathering for peace. We went because she was scared to go and we knew it was especially important to go if she was scared.

    A family with young kids sat next to us and their mom felt safe enough to let her young daughter walk her little brother to the bathroom in this huge synagogue all alone. I was overwhelmed by the strength and bravery of this family, and so many others who came out to hold space and push back against what happened.

    At the end of a week of overwhelming violence, My thoughts and actions are with you all.

  25. The Tree of Life was always my favorite sing along song at my jewish summer camp. I’m holding all of you in my heart. I’m sorry that you’re experiencing this tragedy and I’m sorry that I can’t just feel all of this for you all.

    Riese, I think you said it best when you said “I am terrified thinking of whose turn will come up next, or who will have another round. I am terrified knowing inevitably there will be a next time.”

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