Thirty days after a death, many Jews hold a memorial service to mark the end of the initial period of mourning.
After 30 days, such a service was held in Pittsburgh for the victims of the Tree of Life Massacre.
Jews and Christians jammed into the city’s largest hotel meeting space to remember the most violent anti-Semitic act in American history. The policemen who were wounded in apprehending the murderer were introduced and thanked with thunderous applause. The names of the martyrs were read slowly as a string quartet played somber strains.
The remarkably close Jewish community in Pittsburgh has been buoyed up by the enormous support of the Christian and Muslim communities there.
Our family has just returned from Pittsburgh. We went to the Tree of Life building to deliver our community’s notes of condolence and strength from last month’s Stand With Pittsburgh interfaith service, where local Christian clergy participated in the prayers with me.
The Tree of Life still is bolted and barricaded. Dumpsters filled with rubble are in the driveway, inside a temporary fence. The 11 Stars of David, each with a victim’s name, have been removed to a museum for preservation. On the northeast corner of the property, outside of the metal barrier, there stands ceramic flower-like colored disks, each on a rod stuck into the lawn. At the foot of each one is a fist-sized stone, each with a victim’s name engraved on it.
At all hours, people come here to place small bouquets of flowers, or stones, or yahrzeit candles, or memorabilia. One football shoe used by the Steelers in the game the day after the shooting, with a Magen David painted next to the phrase Stronger than Hate, lay on its side in the drizzling rain.
We were there with our daughter Rabbi Rebecca Shinder’s family. The children added their bouquets to the pile on the ground as we said Kaddish.
Three other pilgrims joined us there in the rain. No words, simply standing and witnessing.
Then a man who said that he had come from Atlanta to pay tribute said, “ I don’t know how to say Kaddish. Will you say it for me?” We did.
Other people walked up to the site as we were leaving. They nodded quietly. It felt like a visitation at a funeral.
There is no explanation. The gift of life carries no guarantees. And “The People of Israel has known cruel suffering, and joyous celebration.” But we can remember. Memory is an act of faith. They shall not be forgotten.
And if we do an act of kindness when we remember, we hallow their memory.
The sadness does not deter us from celebrating Chanukah. We light the candles each night in memory of the Maccabees who died in bravely defending our faith and our people.
The candles shining in darkness is an affirmation of life. We oppose hate against us, and against all people.
A Chanukah teaching is that light and love are stronger than death. Light and love are among the many names of God.
This Chanukah, Jews will not stay away from services because of Pittsburgh. Instead, across the country, they will stream to Chanukah services BECAUSE OF PITTSBURGH!
#Show up for Services, and let us light the Chanukah candles, and sing the songs of our people.
Fredric Pomerantz of Closter is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley there. He served the congregation since 1973, and is a member of liturgy committee that wrote a cycle of prayer books for the Union of Reform Judaism.