This Is What Life Is Like For Us A Year After The Tree Of Life Synagogue Mass Shooting

I need to understand the answers to the questions that remain as I approach the first anniversary of the massacre that took place at my synagogue.
The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Courtesy of Andrew Exler

It has become a strange and surreal milestone for the media to descend at the sites and on the communities of mass shootings on the anniversaries of these tragedies. It feels a bit as if the American public, after driving by the scene of a terrible crash, cannot help but glance, and glance again, in the rearview mirror out of fear and compassion (and probably a touch of voyeurism) to see what is going on. Is everyone OK? How are they healing? Has justice been served? Once the first responders depart, once the wreckage has been cleared and traffic is moving, does the road look any different?

In this past year, I’ve watched carefully as Parkland, Florida, and Columbine, Colorado, marked such anniversaries (one year and 20 years, respectively), because more than ever I need to understand the answers to those questions as I approach the first anniversary of the massacre that took place at my synagogue, Tree of Life, on Oct. 27, 2018.

Let’s take the questions one by one.

Is everyone OK?

As the child of therapists, I can only answer this as they would: What does “OK” mean? It looks different for everyone. For the survivors and families of the victims, the official Jewish one-year anniversary, or yarzheit, according to the Hebrew calendar, will occur on Nov. 16, but of course there is no end date on grief. In a note to the congregation, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers explained, “We will always be healing, never healed.” When I asked Marnie Fienberg, daughter-in-law of victim Joyce Fienberg, how she would say she was coping, she said, “There’s only one reason I’m standing ― it’s because of all the love that we have received.”

“When someone has been touched by mass violence, they are forever changed,” said Alyssa Rheingold, a director at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, who has been working with Mother Emanuel AME Church since the 2015 massacre in the Charleston church. “There is no return to what life was like beforehand. It is a different life journey or path. Hopefully with support and possibly counseling, those impacted can craft a future life journey that is filled with meaning, purpose and peace.”

As for Tree of Life members, we know this is not the first time in history that individuals have tried to intimidate, threaten and annihilate Jews. Though we acknowledge the massacre, which killed 11 and injured others, as the largest ever anti-Semitic attack on Jews in America, we do not wish to be defined by that act. We prefer to focus on the reaction, the incredible displays of interfaith support, such as the way the local Muslim community raised money for the funeral expenses, or the way Calvary Episcopal Church donated their space for high holiday services. The congregation continues to meet in borrowed places to pray, but we are working on a vision to rebuild the site and construct a proper memorial. If you took our pulse, it would beat this message: We were here yesterday. We are here today. We will still be here tomorrow.

The doors of the Tree Of Life synagogue covered in posters and signs related to the mass shooting.
The doors of the Tree Of Life synagogue covered in posters and signs related to the mass shooting.
Courtesy of Andrew Exler

How are we healing?

This strange and awful club of survivors has unfortunately continued to grow at unprecedented rates. The only benefit to this is that the newest inductees now have a host of experienced members to whom they can turn for support. Over the past year, delegations from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the Mother Emanuel church have visited Pittsburgh’s local Jewish community to talk about the aftermath of trauma. We know from them that PTSD can be a long, arduous journey. We know from them to be aware of the increased risk of suicide, including those experiencing secondary trauma. We know from them to seek help.

A number of organizations offer support, such as the local Center for Victims, a nonprofit organization which calls itself a “one-stop shop” for victims of violence, and the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a gathering space and collaborative resiliency initiative recently established at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. There are also national support groups, such as The Rebels Project, formed in 2012 by a group of Columbine survivors in response to the mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, with a mission to connect people going through similar experiences. Sarah Walker Caron, whose son survived the shooting at Sandy Hook, explained that it’s important to “hear from other survivors so they know that they aren’t alone in what they are going through.”

For me, personally, a new stage of hard began a few weeks after the shooting, as we forced ourselves back (and forward) into the regular and mundane rhythm of our lives; and, as the days, then months, passed, I felt more keenly the chasm left between the apparent return to normalcy and the slower knit of internal emotional injury. When I reached out to Krista Hanley, a survivor from Columbine, to ask when things get better, she explained, “Your life evolves around the wounds. Like old trees that mold and form themselves around and through fences. It will always be there, always be a part of you, and it will ebb and flow in strength.”

Has justice been served?

It is not enough for me that the perpetrators are convicted and sentenced. What about the others who should bear responsibility? What about the NRA and the politicians to whom the NRA donates, thereby purchasing votes? What about the president, who condones white nationalism and incites violence himself through racist and xenophobic hate speech? What about those members of our legislature who fail year after year to enact common sense gun laws? What about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose inaction blocks gun legislation from reaching the floor? One does not have to pull a trigger to be complicit.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers blowing the shofar the week before Rosh Hashanah inside of Calvary Church, the Episcopal Church that hosted the holidays for Tree of Life in 2019.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers blowing the shofar the week before Rosh Hashanah inside of Calvary Church, the Episcopal Church that hosted the holidays for Tree of Life in 2019.
Courtesy of Ellen Sikov

Does the road look any different?

This is the one that guts me the most. The short answer is no, as so many suffering communities who have come before us already know. I too wish I could point to the Tree of Life shooting as a turning point, and yet it has been nothing more than another notch in the yearly tally. The University of North Carolina. The STEM Charter School in Colorado. The municipal building in Virginia Beach. The Chabad synagogue in Poway, on the six-month anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting, no less. Gilroy, California. El Paso, Texas. Dayton, Ohio. Odessa, Texas. (When I wrote the first draft of this essay months ago, I left space in this paragraph to add, if necessary, any further, highly visible mass shootings; I watched with horror as they unfolded and accumulated, forcing me again and again to update.) The Gun Violence Archive, an organization that publicly compiles statistics on the subject, reports over 335 mass shootings thus far in 2019. Hate-related crimes, according to the most recent FBI findings, increased by 17% between 2016 and 2017.

For me, there is only one way forward: tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for acts of kindness performed to aid in the repair of the world. What can those subjected to the pain of such loss do but try to prevent it from happening to others? While mass shootings dominate attention through shock value, they represent a relatively small percentage of the deaths and injuries caused by guns each year. According to the Center for Disease Control statistics for 2016, mass shooting deaths account for only 2% of the approximately 39,000 gun-related fatalities that year. The Gun Violence Archive reports over 30,000 deaths thus far for the current year.

One gaping hole in the survivor support network is its poor reach to individuals affected by daily gun violence. While the media swings its Sauron-like eye to the most sensational incidents, many poor and/or minority communities suffer through the grinding attrition of invisibility and the nation’s indifference. Tree of Life and the Pittsburgh Jewish community at large have received millions of dollars in donations since the attack. We’ve also received incredible pieces of art, as well as cards and letters, stored in overflowing boxes in our temporary makeshift office. The generosity and attention causes me both gratitude and shame. It forces some difficult questions about why our congregation has received more (financially and emotionally) than other minority victims: What is the value of a white life? A Black life? A white child’s life? A Black child’s life? The response to these victims reveals that we do not value these lives the same.

The answer lies, in part, in common sense gun control. An unlimited, inviolable 1787 interpretation of the Second Amendment is antithetical to the necessary adaptability of democracy. It ignores the shifts in science and technology that impact civilization. It fails to acknowledge the defects of a system built on fundamental fallacies, such as the founders’ belief in the inequality of race and sex. It interferes with our foremost inalienable right, to move freely in society without fear for our lives. It weaponizes the Constitution toward a different sort of tyranny, one in which law prevails over justice. Our faith in the tenets of America depends on the degree to which the law serves justice, and justice depends on our evolving awareness and pursuit of a moral obligation. As Gloria Steinem said, “Law and justice are not always the same. When they aren’t, destroying the law may be the first step toward changing it.”

Molly Pascal, a member of Tree of Life, lives in Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Lithub, the New York Times, Newsweek, The Jewish Chronicle, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others.

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