This is the note that Rabbi Poupko sent to his synagogue, Congregation Ahavath Torah, after his visit to Pittsburgh. It appeared in his shul bulletin. He was one of a few Bergen County rabbis who made that trip after the murders.
I boarded a flight to Pittsburgh early yesterday morning with a strong feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, the massacre of 11 fellow Jews during Shabbat services is a tragically important moment in the story of our people in this country. To be present at the mourning of holy martyrs sends a clear message that being murdered for our faith affects us all. As a representative of our community, I would join many others who come to honor the memory of these precious souls and show their families that they are not alone during this difficult time. The worldwide Jewish community mourns with them.
On the other hand, having been in the position to support families in times of grief, I have experienced how different families cope with grief and pain in different ways. Some families find comfort and strength in the company of others while others find solace in a more intimate or private environment. Even this clean dichotomy belies the fact that for some people, they may feel differently at different times, may feel one way on the inside and act differently on the outside, or may be internally confused by the barrage of different emotions they are experiencing. All of this challenges rabbis, family, and friends of mourners to be acutely aware of the needs of the mourners and take cues directly from them. These families in Pittsburgh have suffered an enormous tragedy. Their loved ones have been wrenched from their lives in shocking, violent fashion. They are now forced to cope with this trauma, compounded by the fact that they must do so while in the national and Jewish communal eye.
I grappled with whether it will be helpful to show up at their funerals and shiva homes. While this is a tragedy of great proportion for our American Jewish community, it is an intensely personal moment for them. This tension between the personal space of the mourners and the broader community’s desire to reach out and offer support was at the heart of my ambivalence. When approaching someone in our community who has suffered a bereavement, I marshal all of my senses and make every effort to be attuned to how they are experiencing this difficult moment. As I made my way to Squirrel Hill I was intensely focused on the same goal but in a far different context.
With this feeling of ambivalence, I landed in Pittsburgh yesterday morning and attended the funerals for Bernice and Sylvan Simon and for Dr. Richard Gottfried. I paid shiva visits to the families of Joyce Feinberg and Cecil and David Rosenthal. As these experiences unfolded, I quickly learned that the bereaved families were implicitly aware of the very same tension — but from their unique vantage point. Nearly every eulogizer was keenly aware of the painful significance of their loved one’s murder to the broader Jewish community and appreciated the outpouring of support from the four corners of the world. And at the same time, they remained loyal to mourning their family member, their friend, their loved one — and allowed those of us who didn’t know them personally to listen in. They shared generously, with tones of warmth, sadness, and anger, what made their loved ones special. They shared their loved one’s superior character traits as well as their idiosyncrasies. These mourners allowed strangers and the world at large who were listening to see the humanity of their loved ones.
As I listened to the recollections and descriptions, I was able to paint a picture in my mind of each person and what they were like. And the more each person’s image crystalized in my imagination, the more familiar each person became to me. So much of what these individuals were about parallel the lives of the people I see in shul every day. The same kinds of characters, the same kinds of Jews. I’ve often joked that every shul in the world has the same cast of character types. (I’ll leave a detailed description of this observation for a different time). The more I learned about these people, the more I felt I recognized them.
The following are mere glimpses of their vibrant lives and multi-faceted characters.
Bernice (84) and Sylvan (86) Simon had been married for 62 years, were deeply in love with each other, and did almost everything together. This included making the Tree of Life Synagogue a central part of their lives. Together, they were regular shul-goers, never missing a Shabbat and attending during the week to do their part ensuring a minyan. One of the most poignant moments of their funeral was when the Rabbi called up all of the regular shul-goers to sing their favorite tefilah together, “L’Dor va’Dor.”
Dr. Richard Gottfried (65) was remembered by his Rabbi as a kind and generous dentist who provided pro bono treatment weekly to this disadvantaged. As someone who found the way back to shul later in life, he became so greatly involved that he would become head of their religious committee and lead gabbai. He was involved in many other small responsibilities that shuls count on, whether reading haftorah on a moment’s notice or preparing breakfasts that followed morning minyan.
I was able to daven Mincha and spend a few minutes with the family of Joyce Feinberg (74). Her son Howard said that shul became a refuge for her and she became a “loyal minyanaire.” I also met the parents of Cecil Rosenthal (59) and David Rosenthal (54). The brothers were fixtures at their shul. They attended services throughout the week. Both helped out before, during and after services. David Rosenthal was meticulous about arranging prayer books and shawls. Cecil Rosenthal was a greeter. Their father shared with me that it was their grandmother who cultivated their commitment to shul by bringing them regularly when they were young.
The reason these special people, including the other six victims, seem so familiar is because each of them made shul the center of their lives. In this way, they are just like you and me. And that tension between the personal space of the mourners and the broader community’s desire to reach out and offer support — is alleviated not only by how the families invited everyone into the lives of their loved ones but by how each of the deceased oriented their personal lives towards the communal life of the shul. By weaving themselves into the fabric of their community we can recognize them for what they truly valued as individuals. May they inspire us to model their values and thereby perpetuate their memory.
Chaim Poupko is the senior rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood.