Eleven people — a greatly admired physician, a kind and generous accountant, a dentist serving low-income patients, an academic researcher, two very close brothers, an elderly parent, a beloved grandparent, a couple married for 61 years, a person noted for his warm and welcoming spirit — linked by one commonality: their religion. Such hatred, expressed so heinously in their murder.
Pittsburgh now joins Charlottesville as a place name that, like sites of Civil War battles, evokes so much more than the city itself. It stands as a single word reflecting a part of our citizenry gone mad with anger and ready to focus it on people they do not know but whom they have demonized in ways unimaginable to the rest of us.
What can we do in the face of that? Repeat over and over that we are a people better than that and hope that it’s true? Pray that our political leaders will come to realize that what they say matters and that, whether intended or not, their words have consequences?
What we in Wilton do at extraordinarily sad and deeply disturbing times like these is to come together. And we did so magnificently on Friday evening three weeks ago, in numbers so large as to fill Temple B’nai Chaim’s beautiful and spacious sanctuary to overflowing. We did so, in Rabbi Rachel Bearman’s eloquent words, to “welcome the Sabbath as one, interwoven family” and to grieve: for those lost, for ourselves, and for our nation.
Rabbi Bearman spoke at that service of “fear and vulnerability,” of the echoes of a past in Germany, a nation where Jews had long lived at peace and as respected members of the community and yet were transformed into pariahs by the words of a few magnified into the actions of many. She spoke of the most ancient of the Scrolls of the Torah in the temple’s collection, one from a community in Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia, that had lived in peace for centuries only to see it all come crashing down with the thousand members of their congregation almost to a person killed in the camps and their beautiful sanctuary blown up.
The Scroll itself had been inscribed a century earlier and would have been consumed in the flames but for being seized by the Nazis as part of their stolen loot. Recovered at war’s end, it was caringly restored and sent, along with hundreds of other Scrolls similarly recovered, to Temple B’nai Chaim and many other congregations around the world, to be treasured as a memorial to those who perished and a hopeful harbinger of new life in a better world ahead.
So how can that process of demonization be stopped?
A key part of the answer lies in firm and resolute response, and we all saw one clear manifestation of that in the temple’s inspiring service. The hundreds gathered represented all of the faith traditions in our community, and the clergy and lay representatives assembled on the temple’s bimah platform were a perfect reflection of that response as they stood spanning the whole front, arms interlocked in solidarity of purpose.
The Pittsburgh attack took place in the Tree of Life Synagogue, and Rabbi Bearman wove a tree-of-life image beautifully into her sermon: “We are trees of life. Our roots are interwoven with those of the ones who surround us — those who may not be like us, but who stand with us, resolute and compassionate. Our branches reach up to lofty goals and sunny skies even as they provide shelter for those who find themselves unprotected in raging storms.”
Rabbi Bearman closed her sermon with these powerfully inspirational words, “The Mishnah Sanhedrin states, ‘Anyone who saves a life is [considered] as if they have saved an entire world.’ … Tonight and always, I pray that we will hold fast to one another and to our commitment to repair this world. I want to thank everyone who has joined us in our sanctuary — thank you for lending us your strength and for giving us your friendship.”
The following week, assembled in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church were members of the choirs of St. Matthew’s, Wilton Presbyterian Church, and Music on the Hill to sing Faure’s deeply moving Requiem in a service where the 11 murdered in Pittsburgh were among those remembered by name. Singing this magnificent work in the company of others not usually part of one choir was another strong reminder of our common bonds — of the interwoven family that we are and must diligently strive always to be.