Relighting the Tree of Life

It’s October.  That means, at least here in Pittsburgh, everyone is beginning to talk about how to commemorate the terrible thing that happened here last October 27, when some guy from the suburbs drove into our Squirrel Hill neighborhood, went into the Tree of Life synagogue, murdered 11 people, injured others, and traumatized many more.

A lot of people on Facebook are starting to offer their thoughts and prayers for Squirrel Hill as we approach this yahrzeit–and a lot of other people are complaining, “Thoughts and prayers are not enough!  DO SOMETHING!!!  Gun control already!”  Well, yes, I agree that we need to end America’s gun violence epidemic and that metal detectors are at best a temporary solution while we solve this hideous problem.

But don’t be so quick to write off thoughts and prayers.  What caused this attack?  A guy was overwhelmed by his thoughts: thinking that immigrants threaten his way of life, thinking that people who help immigrants settle into the United States are destroying his country, thinking that all Jews are evil, thinking that to protect himself he must kill Jews.  What can we do about a guy like that?  We can share thoughts that contradict his obsessions, and we can pray that God opens his ears to hear.  Also, we can take away the guns–but there are other weapons, so what we most need to take away is the motive.  Every murderer is a person snowed under by thoughts of being threatened and having no other choice.

Pray for people who are struggling with the thought that they are endangered and have to fight by killing.  Think about how you can reach some of those people with inclusion and love, how you can help them see the other choices available, before it’s too late and they do something horrible.  Pray for those who have already done horrible things, that they will repent, see the errors in their thinking, and spend the rest of their lives writing letters from jail trying to spread better thoughts in the world.  It can happen!

But it’s easier to direct our thoughts and prayers to the bereaved and the victims, isn’t it?  And that’s valuable, too.

Sometimes, our minds and souls need to think about painful things, to feel empathy, to ask God for help and strength and guidance and signs that everything will be all right eventually.  Thinking and praying have effects, both on the people who do them and on the people struggling to stay on top of their grief and fear who appreciate at least hearing, “I’m thinking of you.  I know it’s hard.  I want to help.”

Squirrel Hill was showered with tangible prayers last autumn as people around the world made stars and hearts to decorate our neighborhood with reminders of their love and caring.  Here’s an example of the thinking behind it:

One of those crafters was Amy Jaffe of Fox Chapel, who made 11 stars, each one representing a victim of the tragedy. “Each star is made out of scraps of metallic, sparkling or velvet paper left over from classes that I taught at the Laurie Ann West Community Center or old craft projects,” she explained. “It was important to me that the paper was repurposed or left over from a larger piece of paper, because I wanted the stars to have a history, a connection to other people who had used the paper. I guess the idea is that we all come from the same cloth—past connected to present connected to future.”

We are all connected.  So many of the people who responded with empathy to the Squirrel Hill shootings are not Jewish–and many of us living in the community of Squirrel Hill are not Jewish.  The shooting was an attack against Jews, specifically, but it was also an attack against the idea of welcoming immigrants and thus against the idea that we are all people of value who can share space and enjoy being together.  Squirrel Hill is a place with lots of different kinds of people living side by side.  Together, we pushed back against that attack with love, and so many people from around the world have supported us.

How many neighborhoods have graffiti like this?

sidewalk chalk "Spread Kindness," peace sign, heartMessages like this one didn’t appear only in the weeks immediately following the shootings.  I took these photos earlier this month.

This sidewalk-chalking, like the signs that have been in many yards and windows for years now, urges us all to take part in a simple ritual that is part of Jewish religious observance but can be meaningful to anyone of any spiritual background.

sidewalk chalk drawing of candles and "6:39"Jews light candles just before sundown on Friday to welcome the sabbath.  It’s a ritual of bringing peace to the home and beginning 24 hours of rest.  It’s a time to set aside all the hard times of the past week and dedicate yourself to being refreshed for the new week ahead.  Someone once described to me the feeling of lighting Shabbat candles at the end of a hard week as, “Another week has passed, and I am still here.  Thank you for that.”

Lighting candles is also a part of many other religious traditions.  Christians light a candle for someone who is suffering.  Hindus light a candle or oil lamp for prayer.  Unitarian Universalists often begin a service by lighting a chalice.

Whatever your spiritual orientation, you’re likely to find a burning candle in the darkness an effective focus for thoughts and prayers.  I’ve noticed, over the course of this year, that the Jews are asking us, the general public, to join with them in lighting candles in our homes as each Friday’s sunset approaches, to take a moment to think about our world full of people striving for peace, love, and kindness.  (I used to think that the signs about lighting candles were only nagging other Jews.  It no longer feels that way.)

Use this website to find the official candle-lighting time for your zip code.  Think about all the Jews lighting candles, near you and around the world, about the horrors of their history and their hopes for their futures.

Or just light a candle or two around sunset any evening.  It’s my belief that God won’t mind if you’re not following the rules exactly, when your intention is to focus your thoughts and prayers on peace for the bereaved, hope for the oppressed, safety for those in danger, love between all people.

In fact, we’re all invited to offer our thoughts and prayers at 5:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday, October 27, the anniversary of the attack on Tree of Life.  It’s the same time as the memorial gathering here in Pittsburgh.  You can even sign up for a text message to remind you!

Take an opportunity to remember those who died, remember those who have struggled through a whole year missing their loved ones, remember that despite this tragedy we in Squirrel Hill have gotten through a year of choosing love over fear.
sidewalk chalk "light up the world," globe, and heart

“…Let us look for that light, because it’s always there.  It’s always around us.  And it shouldn’t be only during the darkest times that we can see it.”

–Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto

Joyce Fienberg.
Richard Gottfried.
Rose Mallinger.
Jerry Rabinowitz.
Cecil Rosenthal.
David Rosenthal.
Bernice Simon.
Sylvan Simon.
Daniel Stein.
Melvin Wax.
Irving Younger.

Those are the names of my neighbors who died in their synagogue last October 27.  May their memory be a blessing to us all.

Tree of Life stained glass seen from outside, at nightThe Tree of Life building is still closed, although the congregation has announced plans to reopen.  Sometimes, when I pass the building at night, the lights are on to illuminate the stained glass.

I remember admiring these windows from the inside, during an interdenominational service years ago, while listening to readings of the thoughts and prayers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Let it never be said that his thoughts and prayers didn’t make a difference!

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take action to make the world a better place–just that thoughts and prayers can be helpful, too, and we in Squirrel Hill appreciate knowing that you’re thinking of us or praying for us or lighting a candle for us.  A year has passed, and we are still here.

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