This has been a tough week. I’ve personally been in a cloud from the moment my Shabbat joy was shattered last Saturday. I’ve been filled with utter sadness at the loss of precious life at the Tree of Life Synagogue. I’ve been filled with fear. Fear for myself. Fear for the Jewish Community. Fear for the future of our country.
I know that I am not alone. The Jew’s heart is breaking. All in our wider community are hurting. All of us are in grief, in mourning. That is why we are here together.
Each week, we gather to read a section of the Torah, the five books of Moses. We began a few weeks ago with the very beginning of Genesis. And now, we are in the midst of the story of Abraham and Sarah. It completely confounds me that no matter what is happening in our lives, no matter what is happening in our world, the week’s Torah portion seems to fit perfectly to our communal mood and mindset. This week is no exception.
Our Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with death and mourning. Sarah dies suddenly, and Abraham mourns the loss of his beloved wife. The Torah teaches that Abraham grieves for Sarah in two distinct ways: he wails, and he remembers her.
We are in the midst of shiva, the seven days of initial mourning, for the eleven souls of Pittsburgh. We’ve cried. We’ve grieved. We’ve wailed. We Jews also mourn by sharing stories of the dead. Abraham remembered Sarah by reflecting upon her very essence. We too need to remember the dead: what they believed, what propelled them in life, and what mattered most in their world. You may have heard their stories, but they bear repeating.
Joyce Feinberg was a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center for more than 25 years. She was an elegant and warm person who was enormously caring with a huge personality.
Richard Gottfried was a dentist who along with his wife shared a dental practice. Richard and his wife were fixtures in the community and they volunteered together at the Catholic Charities Dental Clinic. He was an avid runner who had recently been attending services at Tree of Life Synagogue.
Rose Mallinger was spry, vibrant, and full of life. At 97 years old, she was the quintessential bubbe (Jewish grandmother) where family was everything. She was mother of three, grandmother to five, great-grandmother to one. Rose attended services every Saturday, sitting next to her sister in synagogue. She was always quick with a friendly greeting, a hug, and a smile.
Jerry Rabinowitz was a primary care physician. During the early days of HIV treatment when stigma was high, Jerry was known to hold patients’ hands without gloves and to embrace them. He was known for wearing bow ties to help make people laugh. Jerry escaped the initial assault on Saturday. and turned around and ran inside to see if anyone was hurt or needed a doctor.
Cecil and David Rosenthal – were two incredible brothers. Cecil was a gentle giant who greeted everyone with a smile and a strong handshake. He had a youthful exuberance and a laugh that was infectious. He had developmental challenges and was a beloved member of the community. David was quieter, but no less beloved. He was a greeter, standing in front of the sanctuary handing out prayer books. The brothers were inseparable.
Bernice and Sylvan Simon were married at the Tree of Life Congregation more than 60 years ago. A neighbor shared that they were the sweetest people you could have imagined. They were always giving back to people, they always stepped up, and were kind and generous.
Daniel Stein was a simple man who didn’t require much. He had a dry sense of humor and was a great guy. He was a former president of the New Light Congregation and is remembered for his kindness.
Melvin Wax was known as Mel to everyone. His greatest passion besides the Pittsburgh Penguins was his grandson. Mel was generous and a sweet man who would help anyone. At almost 88 years old, he’d always park his car a few streets away from the synagogue to leave closer spaces to those who needed them.
Irving Younger greeted each member with a big smile and a handshake. He liked to make sure that everyone knew what page they were on in the prayer book. He went to synagogue every day, he never missed a day. He felt a true responsibility and a role to serve the community.
These eleven precious souls are us. They are young and old. They are singles, couples, siblings, and friends. They are Jews, interfaith couples, Jews-by-choice, those with disabilities; the rainbow of our Jewish community. They are the greeters, the Torah readers, the prayer leaders, and the board members. They are the regulars and those who come every once and a while. They are us.
As I read their stories this past Monday, I began to cry. I know the Rose Mallingers, the Jerry Rabinowitz’s, the Cecil and David Rosenthal’s. I know the Bernice and Sylvan Simon’s and the Joyce Feinberg’s. Pittsburgh is us. Squirrel Hill is us. We are Squirrel Hill. I cried because we are one big family. We lost precious lives. We are all in this together.
As we mourn, I’m cognizant that our shiva, our initial seven days of mourning, is almost complete. As one rabbinic colleague shared: “Today we mourn, tomorrow we act.” What happens tomorrow? Where do we go from here?
I find my answer by going back to the Torah. Halfway through our portion, we meet Rebecca, the matriarch, for the first time. Rebecca sits by her town’s well. When Eliezer, servant of Abraham, appears, she welcomes him with open arms. She provides him with water and also draws water for Eliezer’s many camels.
Rebecca’s quintessential feature is kindness. She welcomes Eliezer, a stranger, into her home. She goes out of her way to help him through his troubles. It might seem like a small thing to provide someone with a glass of water but remember she didn’t have a tap or a sink! The well was far away. And camels after a long hot journey drink much water. This was a big moment and a lot of hard work. Rebecca lives her every moment with kindness and with a welcoming personality.
There is real fear in our community. There is so much hatred and anger in the world. We wish to guard ourselves by building a fortress around our community. There is an urgency to protect ourselves with ever greater walls, doors, guards, and guns. After this attack, the trauma, pushes us to look inward, to circle the wagons, to protect our own.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We must keep our community safe. With our President, Melissa Zieve’s leadership, we have already begun conversations about security and safety. New protocols and new procedures have been implemented and will be implemented to make our community secure in the days ahead.
Yet, it’s not just safety procedures, it’s also outlook and prospective. Do we look inward? Do we close the door? Or do we look outside our walls? As a community, Bolton Street Synagogue has always stood for warmth, welcoming, and community. Our new tagline is: “Doors Wide Open.” Our identity is about opening ourselves up to the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community.
It’s more than us, it’s also the lives who were lost in Pittsburgh. I shared their stories because each person whose life was lost, lived his or her days with kindness and compassion. They focused their days living life with: generosity, kindness, caring, giving, warmth, laughter, smiles, and love. As Rebecca’s essence was kindness and a welcoming personality, so too did the eleven who died at Tree of Life Synagogue. We can’t put up barriers. We can’t turn in the wagons. We Jews need to live our lives with kindness in our hearts and with our doors open to the world.
Our Torah portion begins with mourning. Abraham grieves with wailing and remembrance for his beloved wife Sarah. But, our Torah portion ends in an entirely different light. It ends with comfort. Isaac, the son of Sarah, also grieves. He finds comfort in his new wife Rebecca. We learn in the Torah that: “Isaac loved Rebecca and finds comfort after his mother’s death.”
Isaac finds comfort not through vengeance and anger, not through rage and resentment, but through kindness, love, and togetherness. It’s through relationship and friendship, that Isaac finds peace.
Even more powerfully, our Torah portion ends with the burial of Abraham. We learn that Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s two sons, come together to bury their father. Jewish tradition teaches that Ishmael is the patriarch of the Arabs and Islam. How powerful that two brothers, of two different religious traditions, come together, to bury their father. To comfort each other. To support each other.
Tonight, I’m overwhelmed at the number of non-Jewish friends, family members, and allies who are here to support us. In addition, we have a dozen members of the clergy: pastors, reverends, priests, and ministers, who are here with us in solidarity. We know that we as a Jewish community are not here alone. There are so many of you, who have our back. You are here to comfort us, support us, and be our friend. There is fear for the future, but there is also great optimism that together we can make a difference. Together we can help change this world for the better.
I firmly believe we do that by getting to know each other better, by building deeper relationships across religion, ethnicity, race, and community. That’s why we invited you to be here with us tonight. Don’t just leave after the service and never see us again. Let this be the moment to renew our relationship with each other. As Rebecca opened her home to Eliezer, we too open our home to you. After the service, lets join together to talk, to get to know each other, and to break bread together. Let this moment of sadness and grieving, lead us to comfort, to friendship, and to peace.