Coming Together in the Shadow of the Tree of Life

By Rabbi Dev Noily

We are shaken and grieving, each of us in our own ways, all of us together. We know more now about the people whose lives have been lost and shattered. We know more about the three Jewish communities who shared a building – Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light. We are learning about the web of connections that binds us to the people in Pittsburgh. And we know that just a few days before 11 Jews were killed in their synagogue, two African Americans were shot at a Kentucky supermarket, after the shooter tried and failed to enter the 1st Baptist Church of Jeffersontown. Our prayers and love go out to the families and close ones of these 13 people, to the injured, and to their communities.

We want you to know that as a community, we’ve received overwhelming support and messages of love from allies in every corner – from the first moments after the shooting people reached out to us, and it hasn’t stopped.

Here’s a small sampling:

  • A text from Isaac Lev, a trainer at the Catalyst Project who ran the Ann Braden white anti-racist training that I participated in last year:

I’m sending love this morning after hearing about the Pittsburgh shooting. Please keep me posted if Kehilla is doing any response and/or if you are looking for support with community defense that we could help mobilize in the coming days. We are connected to skilled networks of folks who would definitely turn out.  (Isaac Lev and several colleagues came out to provide security that night at our Havdallah Against Hate vigil.)

  • A  letter, accompanied by dozens of hand-written cards, from Rev. Monte McClain of College Avenue Presbyterian Church:

I write to you to articulate the widest possible expression of our love, support and solidarity with you as a spiritual family, fellow citizens, and residents of our great city of Oakland…. In the wake of the immoral violence against the Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh, we recommit ourselves as a congregation and as people of faith to stand both with and alongside you.  If there is are existing concrete ways in which we can encourage and support you and the community of Kehilla please ask us to show up.

  • Patricia St. Onge, an indigenous leader and part of 1000 Grandmothers, sent this blessing in an email to our member Carol Rothman, and then showed up at the Havdallah Against Hate Vigil and delivered it in person:

In Mohawk tradition, we offer a condolence ceremony. It comes from Aianwatha and the Great Peace Maker:

“If there is anyone in the world who feels as broken hearted as I do, I will go see them. I will take an eagle feather and wipe the dust of death from the sad one’s ears so they can once again hear the children talk, laugh, and sing.”

“And I will take a soft deer skin, and I will wipe the tears from the sad one’s eyes so they could once again see the beauty of Mother Earth and see the joy of their family. “I would console them by taking the death from their eyes.”

“And I will take medicine water and offer it to them so that when they drink, it will dislodge the grief and sadness so that they will be refreshed, and can live again, and speak and eat and be nourished.”

May the work we do together continue to bring healing to the world, and to our lives.

This support, along with so many other expressions of love and solidarity, reminds us that we are not an isolated community, but part of a great web of interconnected communities who are looking out for one another, and ready to support each other. For many of us, the attack awakens (again) the trauma of the holocaust and other violence against Jews that we carry in so many ways, consciously and unconsciously, in mind, body and heart. Let’s hold ourselves and each other with lots of compassion as we experience feelings of vulnerability, inevitability, rage, distrust, and the impossibility of safety. These feelings are so very important. And at the same time, they are part of a much bigger picture of what is real in this moment. They have a voice that we need to lovingly listen to, and it is not the only voice speaking.

We believe that part of our reason for existing is to build a Jewish community on a new foundation. A foundation of compassion and equity for everyone, not just for ourselves. A foundation of healing from trauma as an alternative to reenacting it. A foundation of interweaving our Jewish lives and safety with the lives and safety of other marginalized and vulnerable communities. A foundation of building awareness of our privilege alongside our awareness of our vulnerability and deploying that privilege in the service of others.

We have much on our plates in the days, weeks and months ahead. We’ll continue to be in touch with the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and to be responsive to the needs that arise there as best we can. We are thinking about the communal conversations we want to have about antisemitism – how it works, and how we can resist it through better understanding and deeper relationships with our non-Jewish neighbors. We are part of emerging national conversations about what safety and security might look like in Jewish communities like ours that are allied with People of Color-led movements seeking alternatives to policing. We will continue to come together in Kehilla School, on Shabbats, in classes and at celebrations and in our organizing – to learn and sing and mourn and celebrate and resist hate.

We will continue to live into this time, exploring what it means to be safe, to be allies, to have allies, to build joyful Jewish community, and to be part of the growing network of love and resistance that is now called into being.

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