On October 27, 2018, three congregations that shared Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh were holding Shabbat services, when a gunman entered the building and opened fire, killing eleven people and injuring six more. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The book Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji, is a collection of essays reflecting on its impact by those in the community. The story of the Tree of Life massacre is part of a larger story, one that connects to the events of January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. Susan Sink asked Beth Kissileff, who is a former short-term Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute, to reflect on how the Tree of Life tragedy is connected to the political violence, particularly anti-Semitic violence, unfolding in our country.
While reading the essays in Bound in the Bond of Life, I was struck by the way the Tree of Life massacre connected the Jewish community there to other victims of gun violence. Can you tell us what it means to belong to a network of gun violence survivors?
It has been a very important part of our healing process to hear from and learn from others who have had similar experiences. Polly Sheppard, one of the survivors of the Charleston church massacre in 2015, made the trip to Pittsburgh to share her experiences with us about ten weeks after the shooting at Tree of Life. She talked about faith and forgiveness and some of her own struggles; it was the first time the three separate congregations who worshipped at Tree of Life had gathered to discuss and process together what had happened. It was helpful to see that one can survive trauma and come out on the other side, though we were not ready, then, to hear and understand everything she had to say.
We took a trip to Charleston on Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend in 2019, and Polly joined us on Friday night at a local synagogue and for dinner. The twin sister of one of the men from our synagogue who was killed said that being at Mother Emanuel AME Church was such a powerful experience because every person in the church knew what she was going through. A group from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland came here in April 2019, and again, it was comforting to all to share stories and experiences.
But being part of the community harmed by gun violence also means reaching out to other communities, including the next communities to be struck by such violence. One thing our family found meaningful was a batch of letters we received from young people who had lost parents in terror attacks, some in 9/11, one in the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1994. Our daughter Yael had been in Israel and, although she came home after the Tree of Life shooting, she wasn’t home when those letters arrived. During the summer of 2019 when there were three mass shootings—in Dayton, OH; El Paso, TX; and Gilroy, CA;—she and three friends decided to host a letter writing campaign to the families of those affected. They researched each victim and put cards with information about the victims and survivors on tables at our synagogue where volunteers came to write letters. I was so proud that Yael and her friends organized this act of kindness and support. A reporter for the Washington Post was so touched by what Yael was doing that she made her the lede in a piece about connections between these communities.
The most encouraging thing about sharing the experience with other communities is to see we have a human connection that transcends difference. A week after the shooting, a group of men from the mosque in Quebec that experienced a shooting in January 2017, drove 12 hours each way to meet with a group of members and survivors from the three synagogues. One of them said that his son had told him he was afraid to go to the mosque. I told him that my daughter had the same concern about the synagogue. He then talked about the safety measures the mosque had put in place and the therapy programs it had developed. Despite our many differences, it was wonderful to be able to share our common human concerns, and we were touched that these men made such an effort to come to comfort us.
I would like to see a political movement on gun reform and hope that the wide coalition of those who have been affected by gun violence will help move the law in this country to protect our citizens. I see gun reform as a public health matter, since gun violence has such a big impact on both the physical and mental health of those affected.
One argument we saw in the impeachment trial following the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was that the violence was a long time coming. The incitement charge didn’t result from a single speech, but was a result of the former president’s rhetoric for years. Personally, I kept thinking back to Charlottesville, which also had a strong anti-Semitic element. The man who committed the murders at Tree of Life in October 2018 identified himself as a supporter of the former president. How do you see that connection in fomenting not just white supremacy but specifically anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence?
I see a strong connection. There is a group of people in this country who fear anyone perceived as an “other” and Jews are part of that xenophobic rage. When the marchers in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us,” they had the same attitude of entitlement that the rioters storming the Capitol did. Basically, those who rioted believe that because of who they are, they have the right to dictate how this country will be organized, and if they did not win the presidential election democratically, they will take the office by force. It is so hard for me to grasp that level of both entitlement and disconnection from reality.
At the time of the shooting here I did not think it was fair to blame Trump for the shooter’s actions, The Charleston church shooting happened under President Obama and no one thought an atmosphere he created made him culpable. But, the two presidents’ relationship to bigotry is quite different, as well as their reactions. Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney; Trump basically blamed the victims by saying there should have been better security at our synagogue in his first statement after the shooting. When Trump was asked to abjure white nationalism and over 80,000 people signed a petition asking him not to come to Pittsburgh until he did, he refused, and continued with that attitude even at the time of the presidential debates in 2020, telling the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by.” He told the Capitol rioters he loved them—that he wanted them to behave as they did could not be clearer to me.
I see a clear through line from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to the Capitol riots.
Stoking hate and riling up people’s grievances is particularly beneficial to him. I see a clear through line from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to the Capitol riots. Those who say, “but Trump has Jewish grandchildren, he isn’t anti-Semitic,” need to be aware that those grandchildren have Secret Service protection. His anti-Semitic provocations won’t harm his own family, or so he thinks.
Overtly anti-Semitic groups were present at the Capitol on January 6th. Attention was drawn to anti-Semitic messages on their clothing. What do you think is behind the widespread anti-Semitism in these contemporary American groups?
I think an editorial by Yair Rosenberg from the time of Charlottesville explains it well. Jews are always seen by anti-Semites as a group that wields some kind of power that will harm society, and haters believe harming us will better their own lot. It is beneficial to Trump and his enablers to stoke grievance, and Jews are a convenient scapegoat. Deborah Lipstadt’s book, Antisemitism: Here and Now provides an excellent discussion of why anti-Semitism has persisted.
I was surprised to read that the three synagogues had not returned to the Tree of Life building and your community, New Light Congregation, is meeting in a different rented space. Are there barriers to returning to the site of the trauma?
Our synagogue, New Light, did not return to Tree of Life because we did not want to wait for them to decide how to use the synagogue now. We have a long-term lease at another synagogue. Having said that, I think there is a split at Tree of Life between those who feel being in the building will bring back painful memories and those who feel if we do not continue to use this space as a Jewish worship space, we will be giving the anti-Semites a victory. I think it is just too hard and emotional to be able to make a decision about what the best path forward is. But Covid-19 has made the issue irrelevant for the time being, since Tree of Life has been meeting on Zoom for a year. New Light has organized a hybrid of having 10 people, a minyan, in person when Covid rates have been low enough, but providing a Zoom option for those who can’t take risks with their health.
I will say Israeli visitors are surprised that no one has gone back to the building since in Israel, when there is a terror attack, things are cleaned up and opened right away. In Charleston, the attack happened on a Wednesday and the church reopened on Sunday. Some members there disagreed with the decision to return so soon; they thought there should have been time to process what happened or renovate the building before holding worship there again.
I think it is healthy to let people spend time figuring out what the best decision on the building’s future use is than to make decisions hastily.
We are being told, in the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol, that we need to move on, focus on healing, find unity. But for many, including those who were at the Capitol, the trauma is just now registering. How are the members of your congregation continuing to process this tragedy?
In his book Zachor on Jewish history, the late professor Yosef Yerushalmi asks, “Is it possible that the antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering’ but justice?” To me, that is the main issue with the Capitol riots, the need for justice.
I saw that Nancy Pelosi wants those present at the Capitol to write about their experience. While this is important, the story will change over time and people will understand what happened differently. But I do think it would be a wonderful project to publish a collection of essays about the experiences of that day and I would be honored if our anthology could be seen as a model for that.
No one should be denied a voice or be told their pain isn’t important or that they will get over it. That attitude is not helpful to anyone. All Americans should show our appreciation to those public servants and their staff who suffered immense trauma in the Capitol attack. One way to honor them would be to listen to their stories.
No one should be told their pain isn’t important or that they will get over it.
A friend who suffered loss at a young age told me, “You call the shots.” The Talmud (Moed Katan 28b) also instructs those who come to comfort mourners that “comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourners open conversation.” If you have experienced grief or trauma, tell others you do or don’t want to discuss it at any given moment. Let others know what will be helpful – agency, having a sense of one’s own control, is very important to recover from trauma and grief that one could not control. Those trying to help have to give those suffering agency over what will be helpful to them.
Each experience of trauma and grief is unique and personal. Unfortunately, there were suicides by survivors and relatives of those involved in the Newtown and Parkland shootings; I believe part of their despair is that they were not “over” the horrible violent deaths of those they loved and felt that because they were still suffering, they would never be able feel better at all. I wrote about those deaths, and quoted a newsletter that said, “Your feelings, whatever they are, are legitimate and important. Some people may try to minimize how this tragedy has affected them, but I can’t stress enough how deserving every person is to have their feelings heard in a safe and caring environment.” This is the main thing, to enable people to process and work through their feelings and for them to know that others care.
In terms of our congregation, my husband helped and encouraged the survivors of the attack and the families of the victims to get therapy to discuss their feelings. There is a support group for families of the victims and they have all become quite close and connected. As a group, we have placed a physical memorial both in our new synagogue space and in our cemetery. Despite the pandemic, we have maintained regular synagogue services and activities, continuing what those who were murdered worked so hard for. Some people have taken on new roles in the synagogue and learned new things in order to take on the roles performed by those who were killed. I am proud that we have been able to both mourn the dead and continue on as a living congregation.