What do you do after the unimaginable happens?
What do you do after a man barges into your synagogue with a rifle and three pistols, ramped up on hate and conspiracy theories, and starts shooting? Murders members of your congregation?
Often, you do what you’ve always done, but with a renewed sense of purpose.
If you’re a writer and editor, you might find yourself editing an anthology of different writers addressing the the community-shattering horror.
That’s what Beth Kissileff has done, as co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press on the second anniversary of the shooting in October. Ms. Kissileff, who grew up in Teaneck, moved to Pittsburgh when her Pittsburgh-native husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, returned home to take the pulpit of New Light Congregation, one of the three congregations sharing space in the building of Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation.
In hindsight, it seems a clear path from editing “Reading Genesis: Beginnings,” published in 2016, and the forthcoming “Reading Exodus: Journeys” to editing “Bound in the Bond of Life.” But the idea emerged gradually in the months after the worst massacre of Jews on American soil.
One thing that stood out for Ms. Kissileff in the wake of the attack was “the support we’ve gotten from the non-Jewish community,” she said. “It has been very important to us.”
This support included a visit by four Muslims from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, where six people had been murdered by a mass shooter in 2017. “The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh hosted them. They just wanted to be with members of the three synagogues to speak with us, to talk about things they’d done to increase security, to help the children. Their children said they were afraid to go to the mosque. It echoed what my daughter had said: ‘Will people be afraid to go to synagogue now?’
“All of those things were really helpful to us. People reaching out to us on a human level. The Hindu Jain Temple here did a Chanukah service for the three synagogues.
“And the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church had a service. Eleven African American minister lit 11 candles. Each one spoke and it was just more and more meaningful.”
Ms. Kissileff’s synagogue had a connection with the church that went back a number of years. “My husband is a hospice chaplain,” she said. “One of the volunteers he met there asked him to speak at the church about chaplaincy work.” He did. That led to joint Martin Luther King Day services, starting six or seven years ago, and then to a joint study group, which was studying Proverbs at the time of the shooting. Richard Gottfried, one of the 11 people murdered, had been a member of the study group.
Less than three months after the shooting, members of the study group from the two congregations spent the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine African Americans had been murdered during Bible study.
“It was very much connected to our understanding of the texts we were studying. What is our wisdom? How are we putting it into practice?
“Only three months after the shooting, it was the first time we decided to choose, as a synagogue and as a group, how we think about the event and how we want others to perceive it. It was important for us to say that we see Jews and Blacks as part of the same group white supremacists are gong to attack. We’re going to Charleston on Martin Luther King weekend, and we’re going to march with them. My husband and Reverend Eric Manning of the Emanuel church marched arm and arm in the Charleston Martin Luther King parade.”
After returning from Charleston, Ms. Kissileff asked the participants to write something about their experience. “I thought it would be nice to type up all of the reflections and give it to the people who hosted us in Charleston — the Orthodox synagogue, the Reform synagogue, the church, the people in the Federation,” she said.
And that led to the idea of creating some sort of anthology.
“At first I was thinking it would be of things that had been published already,” Ms. Kissileff said. Then she talked to Eric S. Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. “Eric said that’s a great idea — but why don’t we make it local writers and experiences of local writers?”
The University of Pittsburgh Press liked the idea too and agreed to publish the book.
Ms. Kissileff said she particularly likes the essays that “combine a person’s professional expertise along with their personal experience. My co-editor wrote a wonderful essay about processing; how you process things in an archive, alongside his own personal experience” as a member of Pittsburgh’s closely knit Jewish community.
“In the 18 months since that Saturday morning, I have collected 189 boxes of things documenting the impact of those 83 minutes on the Jewish population of Western Pennsylvania,” Mr. Lidji wrote in his essay. “Seeing all these things together in one place is overwhelming. They are the manifestation of a collective emotional response to one tragedy.”
Rabbi Perlman wrote an essay that combined the personal and the professional.
“He is the only author in the book who was actually in the building at the time,” Ms. Kissileff said. “The parsha they were supposed to read was Vayera, Genesis 18-22. Along with two other rabbis he wrote a liturgical poem, a version of Eleh Ezkerah, which we read on Yom Kippur, which takes its framework from the story of the Akeida in Vayera. It’s about the essential mystery of not understanding the meaning of things that unfold in our world. It’s very important to be aware that there are just things we can’t understand.
“The opening piece, ‘Here is Squirrel Hill’ by Molly Pascal, is a play on E. B. White’s ‘Here is New York.’ She describes the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and the synagogue itself.
“Linda Hurwitz has a very moving story. Her only daughter was murdered on October 27, 1989, when she was 18. Linda had to call her parents, who are Holocaust survivors, and tell them what happened. The first thing they said to her was, ‘You will get through this.’ Her parents taught her that you can find a meaning in the tragedy and can get through it.”
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck, an Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill, contributed two sermons, including one from the Shabbat following the attack.
“When we were putting this together, he said what he was really trying to do was to help his congregation find the vessels to understand what happened. For him, the vessels are Torah study, Shabbat, community, doing acts of chesed,” Ms. Kissileff said.
Three non-Jews, all journalists, contributed essays.
Tony Norman, a columnist and editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “wrote about what happened here, about other white supremacist attacks in Pittsburgh, and also the racism he encounters as an African American newspaper columnist,” Ms. Kissileff said. “I was shocked to hear what he had experienced. It’s upsetting to know the depths of racism in this country.
“Peter Smith, the religion reporter at the Post-Gazette, write about covering this, but also other things he covered in his career as a journalist. He writes about being at a camp for Jewish kids in Poland around Tisha b’Av, and how he learned that acts of kindness and love can take the place of worship at the Temple. I was very moved that a non-Jewish person could transmit Jewish teachings.
“Campbell Robertson is a national reporter from the New York Times based in Pittsburgh. He had been living here for about a year and a half, driving out to Ohio or Kentucky. The shooting was the first Pittsburgh-based story he had to cover. His wife is Jewish, and his daughters went to preschool at another synagogue in the community. One of them went to preschool with a great granddaughter of one of the people killed.”
Why would someone not from Pittsburgh want to pick up the book?
“First of all, it happened here but it could have happened anywhere, unfortunately. White supremacists are all over. Without gun reform, a lot of people have access to weapons they shouldn’t.
“The main reason to read it is to learn about how people cope with grief, how people cope with resiliency. It’s not only a grim book. There’s humor, there’s coping, there’s a lot of good writing in it. We’re all going through difficult things with the coronavirus and the quarantine. One of the things we need to do is strengthen ourselves. This collection shows the different ways one group of people tried to strengthen themselves and cope with a difficult event.”