Wanting to be in two places at one time is a familiar desire. But when I found myself in a taxi cab in Manhattan on the same Sabbath morning when eleven people were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I didn’t want to be in two places at all. I needed to be back in Pittsburgh where I live and make my life. I was desperate to get back to my husband and four children. It was not that I feared for their safety, though. We would normally have been together at our Conservative congregation—just not that Conservative congregation. In fact, my family was attending a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue a mile away from the carnage.
There was a parallel feeling as well. It was the strong conviction that I was in the wrong place, both physically and figuratively. Maybe if I had flown into New York on Friday before sundown, rather than on Saturday morning, and had not broken the rules of Shabbat observance, I might have felt differently. According to traditional Judaism, there are 39 melachot, or creative acts, forbidden in the 25 hours between sundown Friday and an hour after sundown Saturday, and they include driving. Yet I had returned to Pittsburgh the same day I left and thereby I had broken the laws of Shabbat observance by driving and flying.
The rest of Saturday was spent in reunion with my husband and children and worrying. What had really happened? Who was hurt, or, God forbid, killed? I tuned in on Sunday morning for the press conference when they were to announce the names of the victims and was shattered when Joyce Fienberg’s name was read.
PITTSBURGH is my fifth hometown after Montreal, Jerusalem, Washington, and New York. I moved here soon after I got married in 2005 and was immediately welcomed by a cousin and her husband and by her female friends, one of whom was Joyce. I saw these women periodically, mostly for lively lunches on birthdays or special occasions. They were at a different stage of life. Their kids were grown and many had grandchildren. Some were still working while others were winding down their careers. Some of their husbands had died, while some were caring for sick spouses. Meanwhile, I was having babies and trying to manage working. We didn’t know one another that well, but I felt accepted and appreciated. They asked about my kids, our choice of school, and my work life. They offered help and advice if I asked about recommendations for books, plumbers, or restaurants. I loved the opportunity to hang out with a bunch of smart, witty, and fun Jewish women.
Years later, not too long before the shooting, I got to know Joyce a little differently after her niece began teaching at my children’s day school. We took the kids to the local kosher pizza parlor, and there was Joyce sitting at a table with her niece and her brother, who was visiting from Toronto. My kids said hello to the woman they knew from school and I said hello to Joyce. It was a brief interaction and we did not end up spending any more time together as a result. But she had become a part of my life in a different way.
That Sunday and in the days that followed, I learned something else about Joyce. She had been at Tree of Life that morning because she was one of very few people at shul on time in order to “make a minyan”—the quorum of ten people needed to form the community of worshippers. Joyce’s husband, Steven, had died in 2016 and she began reciting Kaddish at Tree of Life. But rather than stop there, after her personal obligation was fulfilled, she continued to attend synagogue because she’d become one of those members who could be depended upon to be one of ten congregants necessary for a Jewish prayer service to take place. For close to two years, she was so committed to making sure other Jews could pray in community that she showed up week after week, including on that fateful Shabbat. She had paid for her commitment to Jewish worship with her life.
I saw that same devotion to Jewish ritual and practice expressed over and over again among other Jewish Pittsburghers in the days following the attack. I spoke to friends who were part of the Chevra Kadisha—the group responsible for making sure that the dead are properly prepared for burial. There were those who attended as many of the funerals as they could and some who walked behind the casket if possible. Multiple appeals landed in my inbox for saying prayers for the wounded and providing support for the bereaved. Students were enlisted to join a minyan and recite special prayers. Attending Joyce’s funeral, I saw many of the women I was used to seeing at lunch come together instead to say goodbye. I heard all about what she meant to her sons, her extended family, her community. It was heartbreaking to listen to all that we’d lost with her death.
Over those terrible days, I also thought about my own choices. It felt like a personal moral failing that instead of being together with my family, I had boarded a plane to New York. I considered what it meant that such a routine decision—to fly on Saturday—had turned into a fault line in time. I began to consider what my own response to the shooting should be. Joyce’s model of Jewish living and fulfilling communal responsibilities was a strong motivator. But I also kept in mind the feeling I had when I learned of acts of Jewish commitment that others had performed and that had made such a strong impression on me. And so I decided that I would henceforth only walk on Shabbat.
Analyzing and examining my Jewish life were not new for me. For years, my family had been living a vibrant and not unchallenging religious life. Like just about every other Jew I know who is concerned about the meaning and quality of religious observance, I found myself considering and reconsidering whether the Jewish rituals and practices I was pursuing were valuable to my children, and whether they were personally satisfying.
For a time, we had been keeping kosher at home but not at restaurants. (Shlomo Riskin, the Orthodox rabbi who both founded Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side and was the founding chief rabbi of the religious West Bank settlement of Efrat, once said about such an arrangement: “Your pots will go to Heaven.”) We then moved on to eating only vegetarian or fish outside the house. Taking on a new mitzvah, a new Jewish commitment, wasn’t a huge break. In one way, it can be viewed as the continuation of an organic process of adaptation to a more traditional model. And yet, in my mind, walking on the Sabbath felt like a watershed. It was the first time I thought to add a Jewish commitment for a particular purpose—that is, to increase the potential perfection of the world through Jewish observance. Traditional Judaism defines the performance of commandments as the effort to fulfill God’s will on earth, today, now. The more Jews fulfill more commandments, the closer we come to achieving a perfected world, a necessary precondition for the coming of the messianic age.
IN THE FALL of 2001, I was at my office in midtown Manhattan when I learned a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When it became clear that something besides a terrible accident was going on, I called my parents, who were then living in Boston, to let them know to turn on the TV news. I told my mom, “Now maybe they’ll understand what happens in Israel.” What I meant was that Americans might have a bit better understanding of what it means to have terrorists who reject your very existence and attack civilians and symbols of your power in order to cause the greatest degree of bloodshed and fear. It seemed possible that Americans might appreciate even more strongly the struggle that the Jewish state has been dealing with since its founding, by having experienced such devastating carnage.
At the time, the outpouring of patriotism, pride, and love for America was heartening and strengthening. Later, I learned that along with those Americans who had responded to 9/11 by joining the military or rededicating themselves to public service, some American Jews had another response entirely—they had become more observant and more committed to tradition. I heard of a man who decided after the attacks that he would marry only a Jewish woman, which he did. Someone else I met opted to eat only kosher meat; still others started to wear a kippah in public or to the office.
Before the shooting at Tree of Life, I didn’t really get it. After all, the attacks of 9/11 weren’t motivated by anti-Semitism. What could the connection be between terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and Jewish commitment? Today, I have friends and acquaintances who don’t understand my decision to observe Shabbat more strictly by not driving. I did not make this commitment as some kind of punishment for having broken Shabbat the morning of the shooting. The opposite is the case. I have chosen to celebrate and affirm my Judaism in the face of one man’s attempt to destroy as many of my fellow Jews as he could. Observing the responses of other friends and Jewish Pittsburghers to the Tree of Life attack, though, I can see how my decision to walk might not seem logical.
IN THE DAYS after the shooting, there were multiple expressions of solidarity, creativity, and comfort. Yet there was also a strong and very public political response—to blame the massacre on President Trump and to “come together” against hate by protesting the current occupant of the White House. Pittsburgh is a city run by Democrats, and it hosts two distinguished institutions of higher learning that are strongly liberal. It is a city where a majority of the Jewish community, like all other American Jewish communities, leans left. Opposition to Trump had been obvious and commonplace since his election in 2016. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, and yet I was—shocked, even. Worse still, as far as I was concerned, those members of the Jewish community who made a big deal out of appropriating Jewish symbols and texts to conduct their protest campaign were doing the opposite of what those symbols and texts are meant for. I was told by one such protester that it was her “Jewish values” that informed her outrage toward the president.
The logic escaped me. How could it be that the most important response to a son of Amalek killing our brethren was for Jewish anti-Trump protestors to read Tehilim aloud down the middle of Murray Avenue? The protesters didn’t just want to yell at President Trump and tell him how little they thought of him, his wife, his family, his policies. They unapologetically used a Jewish text to reject him. To such people, it was perfectly obvious that left-wing politics and Judaism—the religion, the traditions, and the texts—were inextricably linked.
I was bewildered and hurt that so many people—and people I know—would use a brutal massacre to score political points. It was especially painful that so many would opt to use Judaism as a means to do so.
IT TOOK time for my family to get used to walking to our synagogue. In bad weather, the distance is onerous. And even in summer, it can be a trek since it’s uphill most of the way. But not long ago, I realized how much I’d gotten used to it. And our youngest child, who is six, has stopped asking if we are walking or driving.
Walking on Shabbat is just one way to mark a fault line. It is a means of delineating the sacred space of Shabbat as separate from the rest of the mundane week. The observance of Shabbat is filled with such separations and designations.
At first, changing behavior can be uncomfortable, and especially when it comes to religious observance, it can seem downright strange. I don’t think about walking in connection with the Tree of Life massacre anymore, if I ever did. Our Shabbat experience changed because of the shooting, but that does not mean it remains uppermost in my mind on any given Saturday. Instead, not driving on Saturday has become as integral to my family’s experience as anything else we do to mark the separation from mundane weekday to holy Sabbath. It has also altered our community relationships, because we are invited more often to the homes of fellow congregants for lunch after services. Others have told us their door is open to us if we get caught in the rain walking home or need a glass of water or to rest. On some occasions, we’ve stayed longer at synagogue to enjoy an afternoon program or to visit with our friends. When the weather has been particularly forbidding, we’ve stayed home entirely and spent time together as a family.
One of the more beautiful aspects of Judaism is how it offers us the possibility of meaningful change. Walking on Shabbat is another step on the road to a deeper and richer Jewish life—and I am mindful that it was this richness that informed Joyce Fienberg on the ordinary Shabbat morning in 2018 when she made her way to Tree of Life to help make the minyan.
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