Three years to the Pittsburgh shooting - here's what I learned

Beth Kissileff's husband was in the basement of the Tree of Life synagogue when the shooter entered. "I certainly feel that our lives are in God’s hands."

 A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Nothing unites like a shared experience, and one of the few shared experiences of all humans is mortality. Perhaps that is why Yom Kippur is among the most widely observed of Jewish holidays, with a 2019 poll showing that 60% of Israelis fast, and a 2013 poll indicating that American Jews find Yom Kippur the most important Jewish holiday. It feels good to join together with others in fasting and chanting five times over the course of the day about our sins with others, especially since most of us did the ritual in smaller communities in the past year because of the corona pandemic.

Prior to COVID, I have been part of a community that faced mortality. A Jew-hating shooter came into a synagogue in my neighborhood, a scant 0.7 of a mile from my house, on a Shabbat morning in October 2018 and started shooting. When he was stopped, 11 were left dead, and two worshippers and four policemen were injured.

My husband, worshiping in the basement of the building, heard the noise and was fortunate to have the time and presence of mind to hustle the three other people with him at the front of the room to a dark storage area, where they hid from the shooter. One of them, a hard-of-hearing 87-year-old, left the room either because he thought the danger was over or he did not understand the nature of it, and was killed. My teenage daughter and I were not there because we usually went later to shul.

 The now vacant Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.  (credit: BETH KISSILEF)
The now vacant Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (credit: BETH KISSILEF)

As a result, I certainly feel that our lives are in God’s hands, and that we don’t know what fate has in store for us. I don’t understand why some were saved and some were shot; the outcome could have been different because of a number of variables. On the day of the shooting someone came to my house and said, “Hashem did not want your husband to die,” which left me angry on many levels. How does any human know what Hashem wants?

The mystery of God’s ways is not one that humans can be expected to decipher. Or as Isaiah 55:8 says: “For my plans are not your plans, nor are my ways your ways.”

Humans and the divine don’t operate on the same plane. Would that mean that God wanted others to die? That theology is completely unacceptable to me. I believe that God gives humans free will and sometimes they choose to do evil. God cannot stop all evil but can mourn along with humans over tragedy.

 The writer with her husband and rabbi of the New Light Synagogue, Jonathan Perlman. (Ivy  (credit: IVY DASH PHOTOGRAPHY)
The writer with her husband and rabbi of the New Light Synagogue, Jonathan Perlman. (Ivy (credit: IVY DASH PHOTOGRAPHY)

In some ways, having experienced this tragedy is liberating. It frees me from the many mundane worries like skin cancer due to not wearing sunscreen, the ill effects of caffeine, and the health effects of eating too much meat, which are all under our control. But the fact is, sometimes the unimaginable happens.

The purpose of Yom Kippur and the season of repentance that comes before it is to enable us as mortals to think about how we want to spend the time allotted to us here, to prioritize and be sure we are spending our time in accomplishing the goals we believe to be significant. Jews don’t go with the flow and let time pass, we are deliberate in how we plan the span of time.

 The #HeartsTogether art project, an artistic response by the community in the wake of the shooting, line the fence of the synagogue. (Be (credit: BETH KISSILEF)
The #HeartsTogether art project, an artistic response by the community in the wake of the shooting, line the fence of the synagogue. (Be (credit: BETH KISSILEF)

The holidays, then, help us contain and hold time, to use it in ways we deem important. For example, if we want to be sure, we put aside time to enjoy leisurely meals with family and friends. Let us set aside a whole day in the week dedicated to that. Likewise, if we want to think about our deeds and who we are and how we might live our lives in a better or more authentic or more goal-oriented life, let’s set aside 40 days, from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur, to do that as well.

And that too, the break from ordinary living, is an outgrowth of our close experience with death. Many people after traumatic experiences have what is called “post-traumatic growth,” defined by Melissa Glaser who wrote a book about healing after the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting as: “The belief that you can also achieve personal growth, encounter new opportunities, develop closer relationships, gain a stronger appreciation for life, and deepen your spiritual core in the wake of tragedy.”

That is what I believe is the goal of Yom Kippur as well: The tragedy shared by all humans is that of the experience of mortality. No one is differentiated from another in this. In fact, the part of the Talmud that deals with Yom Kippur asks explicitly (Yoma 82b): “And with regard to the murderer himself, from where do we derive this Halacha that he should be killed rather than transgress the prohibition against murder?”

The Gemara answers: “It is derived through reason, as it was told: A certain person came before Rava. He said to Rava: ‘The master of the village where I live said to me: Kill so-and-so, and if you do not do so, I will kill you.’ What should I do?

“Rava said to him: ‘Let yourself be killed, and you should not kill.’

“Rava reasoned: ‘What did you see to make you think that your blood is redder and more important than his? Perhaps the blood of that man is redder, and he is more important than you. If so, it is logical that one must not kill another person to save himself.’”

Thus, we are all equal, in our blood and in our mortality. Talmudic logic says so. This sense of mortality has been magnified for everyone around the world, with the corona pandemic making us worry every time we leave our house about what kind of virus we might absorb from others around us. But it is also an opportunity.

During this time of year, we must ask ourselves: What are the most important things that I need to get accomplished in the limited time I reside on Earth? If I make sure that the large tasks get done, all the minor, less important things can be fitted in around them.

In essence, this is what Yom Kippur is trying to teach us: because we know our time on earth will come to an end, we need to utilize it as skillfully as possible so that we can accomplish what we want. Our goal is not “productivity” but sticking to our goals. Getting to zero inbox is not necessarily the end goal; having a particular plan and staying the course and getting done what you plan to do is.

Our whole family learned after the shooting, in the words of writer Betsy Lerner discussing her mother’s circle of friends who support each other in The Bridge Ladies, that support without physical presence or sustenance is “not like showing up with a brisket.”

We very much appreciated all the ways people showed up for us. Friends whom we have not been in touch with for a while, Scott and Gail, just showed up and made us laugh as though we were all still in our 20s and students in Jerusalem again. Polly Shephard, a survivor of the 2015 shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, visited to speak with those congregants who wanted to hear her, though she rarely addresses the public, and it is difficult for her to recall the anguish that she is still experiencing. Four men from a mosque in Quebec City where six worshippers were killed in 2017 drove 12 hours each way to share their own experience and insights less than 10 days after the shooting.

All of us were religious people with the experience of shared mortality.

My greatest goal is to use the compassion I was shown, turn it around and present it to others. This is due to my belief that God can’t take away evil, though we learn in Yoma 20a that on Yom Kippur, Satan has no license to prosecute. Still, God’s power is in the sense that despite challenges, in the words of Psalm 136 k’l’olam hasdo, God’s kindness endures. People can suffer and still find the means to find kindness done to them and show it to others.

Yom Kippur is about fate. A goat will be sent out to the wilderness to be killed, and another to the Temple to be slaughtered. The goats are supposed to be the same, equally worthy of either fate. Yet we as humans are not goats – we are capable, whatever our situation, of trying to take control and wrest fate to make it what we wish. The end of the tractate Brachot that talks about a rabbi about to be martyred triumphing over his persecutors by declaring that now he is able to fulfill his desire to love God with all his heart soul and might is the greatest example of this. Even in death, his opponents are not victorious over his soul and his ability to find meaning in his life.

That is why the Psalm for Elul, Psalm 27, about hope, is so germane to this month. One interpretation of its final verse, in Berachot 32b, exemplifies this. The last verse of the psalm is: “Hope in the Lord, strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord.” The Talmud comments that one should turn to God with hope and bolster four things. They are: “Torah, good deeds, prayer, and occupation.”

That is the task for Yom Kippur and the rest of the year: to bolster ourselves, to find chizuk (strength) in learning, in action, and in contemplation, and in our behavior in the world around us.

Our prayers may not be answered as we ask for them to be or as we want them to be, but the act of prayer itself can strengthen and bolster us. That is what we are hoping for on Yom Kippur, by paying attention to our shared mortality and that we only have a finite amount of time to achieve what we wish to in our mortal lives.

The writer is a journalist who has contributed to Tablet, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, the New York Times, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report, and others. She resides in Pittsburgh with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of the New Light Congregation.