By Larry Gordon
It was an attack on Jews, but it was also an attack on everyone who cherishes the lives we are able to lead openly and proudly here in the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.
By all accounts, it was a conventional autumnal Shabbat morning in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a city of 300,000 people. There are several thousand Jewish families who call the city home, and, I am told, there are 600 families in the insular Orthodox Jewish community. There are shuls and yeshivas, a kashrus organization, and most of the Jewish institutions are in close proximity to one another.
Rabbi Elazar Admon is an Israeli who served in Magen David Adom, Hatzalah of Israel, and ZAKA. For the last six years he has lived in Pittsburgh, where he is a rebbe in one of the local yeshivas.
ZAKA’s presence in Pittsburgh, as it is in several major cities outside of Israel, is a relatively new phenomenon. They are there to do that which they do best — and that is when there is a horrendous attack like this one, to preserve the sanctity of the body and ensure that a respectable and dignified burial takes place.
At the time of the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue last Shabbos morning, Rabbi Admon was in his shul, Congregation Shaare Torah, at a community bar mitzvah about a half-mile from Tree Of Life. “We heard a torrent of what sounded like nonstop sirens,” he said. He explains that they asked the janitor to call the local precinct and at about the same time police arrived to advise his shul and the others in the area to go on lockdown because of the report of an active shooter nearby.
Admon says that about two hours later, he and the rabbi of his shul, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, walked over to Tree of Life to assess what was going on. Rabbi Wasserman is the head of the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha, and Rabbi Admon is with the local Hatzalah organization as well as the newly founded chapter of ZAKA.
He says that, fortunately, the local police station is just about half a block from Tree of Life so the police response to the first calls was instantaneous. The local ambulances, EMTs, and paramedics responded at the same time as the police, so the need for immediate Hatzolah action was not required, though their volunteers were on site to assist the first responders.
Elazar Admon said that once he and Rabbi Wasserman were allowed into Tree of Life it was a difficult scene. Back in Israel he had answered calls that were extremely difficult, but, he adds, this was an especially emotional moment. “This is our community, where we live, people we know and see all the time,” he said.
As of Sunday afternoon when we spoke, the bodies were all in the same place they fell after being shot, as investigators were still examining the shul and going over the crime scene. He hoped that by sometime on Monday the bodies would be released and the funerals would be able to begin.
Those who have perused the list of victims will notice that most of those murdered were older or elderly. Rabbi Admon explained that the Tree of Life building hosts four different congregations. Two are in the basement of the building and two others, including Tree of Life, are on the first floor.
According to Rabbi Admon, the building conducted a seminar and drill at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security about four weeks ago, instructing people on the protocol and procedures to be followed in case of an active shooter or similar attack. The instructions were essentially to remain in whatever room you are in at the start of the attack and not to run out of the building where you can be spotted by the gunman as you are doing that.
Tragically, there have been many similar shootings in recent times. Each one is a personal, communal, national, and even global tragedy. It defies our emotional grasp and comprehension.
And no, I don’t believe that we have been desensitized in any way by the seemingly steady barrage of these types of events. Each time something like this happens — whether it is in a church or school or, as in this case, a shul — it is deeply painful and disturbing.
Still, despite the magnitude of these dastardly acts and killings and the way they have altered so many families, it seems that across the board there is something unique, I dare say, or just different, when it comes to an assault on Jews for that specific reason — because we are Jews.
I heard a news personality on a cable news channel say on Monday, “Haven’t the Jews been through enough after all these years?” The irony here is that as recently as last week, two dozen rockets were fired into Sderot by others targeting Jews because they are Jewish, hitting a private home and injuring six innocent civilians, some of whom are still hospitalized. And just two weeks ago, a Jewish man and woman working in the Barkan Industrial Park in the Shomron were shot and killed at work, execution style, in an area where Jews and Arabs routinely work together on a daily basis.
As Rabbi Admon said the other day, there is something extra emotional when it happens to people you know and at a location where you live. And that from a man who worked with Magen David Adom and with ZAKA in Israel under just-as-difficult circumstances, at the sites of terror attacks in Israel over many years.
The additional aspect of all this that is so shocking and even shatters our otherwise strong psyches is the fact that it might be a hint to the age-old question: Can it happen here? Conventional wisdom says that it cannot — this is the United States, the bedrock of freedom and democracy, and the protection of all the rights of our citizens, whether it is religious or any other freedoms.
Naturally and rightly, there will be talk about the need for additional security at our shuls and other institutions. Some of our shuls here in the Five Towns and in surrounding communities have security that is subtle but very clearly present and effective. An attacker’s motivation, like the hater in Pittsburgh, is important but almost secondary. It is indeed an awful and repugnant reality that people in this day and age harbor these types of anti-Semitic feelings and act on it in a murderous fashion.
From our unique perspective, there is little difference between those who murder Jews in Israel and those who do that here in the U.S. There is no room for any of this anywhere in the world. That should not have to be said.