Community Reflections Post-Pittsburgh Shooting

January 8, 2019  • Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno

The first days following the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in the heart of Squirrel Hill were surreal.  Without regard to our background or beliefs, irrespective of our politics or our particular brand of religion, everyone felt connected to one another.  No one asked or expected anything of anyone; we were simply in a collective state of stunned silence and in need of little more than a hug from a neighbor, an embrace from a friend.

If there is a single verse in the Torah from which I drew comfort in the days after October 27th, it was Leviticus 10:3: “vayidome Aharon…. and Aaron was silent.”

The Hebrew words vayidome Aharon characterize a father’s response to the death of his sons when they “came before God.”  Like the eleven gunned down in the Tree of Life building, Nadav and Avihu’s lives, too, ended violently and before the altar. Yet all the Torah says of their father’s response is: “vayidome … and he was silent.”

I take comfort in the biblical Aaron’s silence, for it avoids relying on theology to explain the inexplicable (said theologian C.S. Lewis, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”) And, too, sharing silence obviates the oft-times felt-need we all have to explain an event away by relying on reason over relationship.  Instead, the biblical Aaron’s stunned silence coupled with the simple need, in the words of Ranier Maria Rilke, “to sit with the one who is sad,” is all that is required of him… and of me.  Truth to tell, silence and presence is all that is required of any of us.

And yet… as a Jew who was also gathering with a community for prayer that Shabbat morning, and as the rabbi of the large Reform congregation just down the hill from “Tree,” I have a story to tell and a vision to share, and speak I must.

On that fateful Shabbat morning, as members and guests of Rodef Shalom began to arrive for services, snippets of news also came: congregants can’t get here, roads are blocked, an active shooter is inside Tree of Life.  Almost immediately, and in co-ordination with local law enforcement, we went on lockdown.  And then, over the next hour, our now-captive-community celebrated our own safety and well-being, even as we prayed for the protection and peace of our neighbors.  As sirens repeatedly wailed outside, within, we shared facts as we learned them: multiple fatalities, shooter apprehended; in time, 11 dead, others with significant injuries.

And as we came to realize our losses, foremost among the lost and injured, that which makes our community’s vibrant fabric and sense of familiarity, our city’s hard-won pride, and our country’s founding principles so special: a time-tested respect for one’s neighbors, tolerance of difference, the free exercise of religion, and a freedom from want and fear… all now violently torn asunder.

And ever since… as we in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community have grappled with the implications of that morning for our community, our city, and for our larger society, as well as for each of us as individuals, what has emerged amidst the shadows and the silence are stories of how we are connected to one another, tales of how we have been impacted by this experience, of how neighbors supported one another, and perhaps most significantly, how everyone in this shell-shocked city has been sustained by the loving spirit of an entire nation.

This story – a story of a sacred community gathering – is the one I wish to share.

In the days immediately following, my community, Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh’s oldest and largest congregation opened its doors to the entire community.

We hosted funerals and shivas, and since the first weeks of November, both Tree of Life and Dor Chadash have been meeting in our building; Tree has set up their administrative offices here, and both communities use our worship spaces on Shabbat and our classrooms on weekdays for their religious school programs.

Together (wherein we never had before), we’ve shared Chanukkah celebrations and rejoiced at one another’s simchas (happy events); and even as we gather to remember all we have lost, so are we reminded daily how wide is our support and how deep and enduring are the relationships we enjoy with our neighbors.

Across the religious and civic landscape, this tragic event has revealed a reality that has been our unspoken pride for many years: friendships with neighbors that are built on familiarity and respect; a shared sense of purpose that makes it clear to all: we are stronger than hate, we will not defined by the worst among us, and most meaningfully, we are in this together and we will endure, survive, and thrive through this together.

Just as for the last 17 years we have thought of air travel as “pre- & post-9/11” experiences, so we will speak of Jewish congregational life in America as defined by two distinct “pre- and post-Tree of Life” realities.

What this will mean is less than clear.  But of this I am certain:

A single act of horror and hate has revealed many thousands of acts of generosity and goodness.  And insofar as this reality reveals an essential and enduring truth, we could do worse than for all of us to live within that revelation going forward.

This, after all, is how we make a good society better.  What else is there to say?

Vayidome Aharon.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars Department. 

Aaron Bisno has been, since 2004, the Frances F. & David R. Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prior, he served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia (1998-2004); and was Director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center in Charlottesville, VA  from 1996-1998. In 2010, Rabbi Bisno & Bishop David Zubik led a first-ever Pittsburgh-based Catholic-Jewish pilgrimage to Rome and Israel.  So impactful and important was the experience, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI conferred a Benemerenti Medal upon Rabbi Bisno for his “outstanding contributions to interfaith relations.”  Rabbi Bisno, a 1990 graduate of Washington University, received a Master’s of Arts in Hebrew Letters and Rabbinical Ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1995 and 1996, respectively; his Masters of Science in Organizational Dynamics is from the University of Pennsylvania, 2004. Aaron is married to the former Michelle Kaplan; the couple has two boys, Adam and Michael.  

Aaron Bisno participated in the June 2018 Aspen Executive Leadership Seminar.

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