October 27th, 2018 - A Virginia Tech Student's Reflection On the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
“I grew up attending the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA throughout elementary school. I know this isn’t typical for a young kid, but I loved going to synagogue, even though I didn’t necessarily like praying. Tree of Life just felt like a home to me. I remember Rabbi Chuck and his bag of toys that he’d give out to the restless kids in the congregation. I remember my sister got a weird, purple, monster stuffed animal that she named ‘Rabbi Guberstein because she thought that would be a funny name for a rabbi. I remember the kids' services where they gave us sweet treats and explained things simplistically so that every holiday and tradition truly resonated with even the youngest of us. I remember playing games with the other kids while our parents schmoozed in the social hall and I remember running through the halls giggling with my siblings and friends.
I remember the victims. I was young and I cannot say I remember exact moments, but I remember how they made me feel. The most distinct being the pure joy that Cecil and David Rosenthal brought into the room, especially for the kids. They went out of their way to greet every kid in the congregation. Cecil was super silly with us and I would look forward to Friday night services to run through all of our silly shared jokes. My mom tells us that our faces used to light up, like we saw a celebrity, when we saw Cecil and David walking down the street.
All my memories of the Tree of Life and its congregants are pure, innocent, and happy.
Except for one.
That awful Saturday morning, I was eating breakfast when my sister ran downstairs yelling “Turn on the TV right now! Something is happening at Tree of Life!” And when I turned on the TV, I saw it: There was an active shooter, who had interrupted Saturday morning services screaming “all Jews must die”.
I will never be able to put into words the instant fear that rushed through my body. My mind raced with infinite thoughts. Every new second filled my body with a new wave of dread and nausea.
Every “Are you safe?” text I sent took a lifetime to get a response, even if the response was instant. Every “I’m ok” was a small sigh of relief, quickly followed by panic as I remembered another person who could be in danger.
Eleven innocent people were murdered that day for being Jewish. Eleven names that live on in my heart. I have, however, made an intentional effort to never learn the name of their killer. I do not want to know. This man is the lowest, most disgusting type of person, fueled only by rage and hatred. I will not do him the courtesy of knowing his name.
The following hours, days, weeks, and months were agonizing as we learned more details. But they were also impossibly beautiful as the larger community rallied around the Jewish community. “Hatred can’t weaken a city of Steel” This was and still is the motto of my beloved Pittsburgh’s emotional recovery. Mountains of flowers arose outside the Tree of Life.
Jewish stars with each victim's name were placed in front of the garden that I used to play in. Stones were placed lovingly around each star, according to jewish tradition, because flowers may wither but stones last forever just like the memory of those we have lost. My non-jewish friends all checked on me regularly to make sure I was doing ok. The city of Pittsburgh also had a vigil, which I attended with my family. I still hadn’t comprehended the scope of the attack even while surrounded by thousands of grief stricken community members literally holding each other up. A look of disbelief and horror present on each of their faces. A picture of my dad (with his arm in a sling from a recent surgery) hugging my crying mom emerged in news stories and social media posts around the world. It was so close to home that it didn't make sense. It couldn’t make sense.
The following Shabbat, out of a deep need to be with one another, we went to our local Synagogue for Friday night services. As we turned onto the street, we were greeted by hundreds of congregants from local churches of all denominations. Adults and kids of all ages stood silently holding candles lighting our path. The kids who couldn't be given candles stood holding their hands in a heart shape with empathy in their eyes. The whole interfaith community was there to support us.
In Judaism, there is a saying “may their memory be for a blessing.” I have absolutely no idea who started it, but a beautiful thing began shortly after the shooting. These little pieces of paper, no bigger than business cards, started circulating. The idea was to do something kind and selfless, then leave behind a card for the recipient of your good deed. The cards also had a link you could follow to print out entire sheets of cards. People began posting all over social media about the acts of kindness they were receiving. One person found five dollars and a card in a library book. Another pulled up to the McDonald’s drive through to find that their meal was
paid for by the car in front of them on the sole condition that they accept one of these cards and keep paying it forward. Little good deeds spread like wildfire across the community. All of this was in the memory of Cecil and David Rosenthal, two of the kindest souls in the world, and two of the eleven victims taken that day. The community made sure that the memory of Cecil and David Rosenthal would be a blessing for thousands of people that would never actually know the men that inspired the movement.
I will always remember the endless love and support that surrounded us when an unimaginable tragedy struck our community. But I will also never forget the worst day of my life, when a place I knew as innocent, joyous, and peaceful became the site of the deadliest act of anti-semitism in modern history: October 27th, 2018 - May the memory of all eleven souls be for a blessing and may we never forget.”