Notes from the Desk: On the Pittsburgh Shooting

By SARAH ASCH

When I first heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I turned to writing as a way to process my grief. Since I wrote down my first reactions to the news, I have seen incredible resilience within the Jewish community and wonderful support from those who stand with us against hate. I am so grateful for the solidarity and love that I have experienced over the last two weeks. 

When I saw the news, I tried to think if I know anyone who lives in Pittsburgh. If any of my Jewish friends have family there. If any of the first-years we’ve welcomed to Hillel over the last few months grew up there. I couldn’t think. I called my friend and cried on the phone. And I cried after we hung up.

When I saw the news, I got up and put my Magen David necklace on. It belonged to my grandmother. I needed to wear it that day.

When I saw the news, there was no news yet. Two police officers — shot but not killed, no information about further casualties. Situation developing. Eight confirmed dead, further injuries reporting to the hospital. Suspect at large. Suspect surrenders. 11 confirmed dead. Suspect yelled “all Jews must die” as he entered the Shabbat service and opened fire. I couldn’t read more news after that.

I thought about the chill that ran down my spine and into my toes when I heard white supremacists marching in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” I was scared then. This is what I was scared of.

I thought about the desecrated Jewish cemeteries with the gravestones tipped over. The rocks that were once stacked on top spilled off into the grass. I always put rocks on top of Jewish gravestones when I go to cemeteries. It feels like a promise. It feels like telling the dead that even though they are gone, they passed down their customs. That there are still people who know to put rocks on gravestones. They succeeded, they can rest.

I thought about the swastika that was chalked onto the Havurah in Middlebury after the 2016 election. We held a memorial service on campus and we sang in the November night. It was freezing out, and it felt like maybe every Jewish person in Vermont came to mourn with us. I held a candle. I felt so much less alone.

When I was in Prague this summer, I visited the surviving synagogues. The synagogues still stand there because Hitler planned to use the city as proof of the exterminated Jewish race. In the Pinkas Synagogue, they have painted the names of every known Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust. 78,000 names. The names cover every inch of every wall downstairs from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, they have an art exhibition: children’s art pieces from the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Most of those children died in Auschwitz.

I remember studying those kids during Holocaust Remembrance Day at my Hebrew school. When I was 15, we did an exercise where we each received the profile of one of the children to memorize. We stood in a circle and we told the other students about our assigned child. At the end, if the child had died before the war ended, we sat down. Writing this, I don’t remember if the child I learned about died or not. But I can tell you exactly which of my friends sat down in that circle. My little sisters were both in that circle. I know they both sat down.

Outside that synagogue in Prague, I walked through the Jewish graveyard. It’s all stacked on top of itself, since Jews did not have the right to expand it. I stepped across the rope to place a pebble on top of a gravestone nearby. It was the only rock I could find.

I can’t stay away from the news any longer. I click through the articles. CNN. Washington Post. New York Times. The shooter, they say, was a known white supremacist and anti-Semite. He posted evil words on the internet, as so many do. I don’t want to know his name. I don’t care what his story is.

He said “all Jews must die.” But I am still here. While I was standing in that synagogue in Prague, I thought about that. I am here. In a city that witnessed unspeakable atrocities, on a continent where six million people died for believing as I do. I am still here. We are still here. At the time, that gave me some small amount of hope. It still does, even on days like these.

In memory of those who lost their lives, I will try to practice “gemilut chasadim,” acts of loving-kindness. I will remember that our fight is never over and that my Judaism teaches me to fight for all those who face threats of violence and erasure. My heart breaks for all of those who lost loved ones on Saturday. May their memories be a blessing.

A version of this piece was originally published in New Voices, an online Jewish student magazine. 

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About the Writer
SARAH ASCH, Editor-at-Large

Sarah Asch ’19.5 is an editor at large.

She previously served as senior features editor, features editor, and staff writer.

Asch is majoring in...

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Notes from the Desk: On the Pittsburgh Shooting