A Time for Mourning and Action



It is hard to believe that this Sunday will mark the first anniversary of the vicious massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers at the poignantly named Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst attack on targeted Jews in U.S. history.  

In a moving Jewish Telegraphic Agency story by Ben Sales published earlier this month, survivors describe the anguish they felt during the High Holidays.

The man who had sounded the shofar for many years was among those killed by the shooter, who told police his goal was to kill as many Jews as possible.

The synagogue building, which remains shuttered, has physical scars of the shooting, while survivors must endure their emotional scars for the rest of their lives.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

“A brown, wilted wreath hung on a tree near the synagogue,” Sales writes. “Jewish stars bearing the names of the victims are taped to a glass door at the front entrance, behind a fence and under an Israeli flag and a sign thanking first responders. A makeshift wooden sign on a barricade next to the building reads, ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time.’ ”

Ellen Surloff, who was president of one of the congregations that worshipped in the building at the time of the shooting, is quoted saying she hopes the building is demolished.

“I don’t think that I could ever go back in that building and not be continually reminded of what took place there,” Surloff says.

Many American synagogues read out the names of the martyred Jews. Last year, the Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Relations Council and other groups in St. Louis organized a moving service of remembrance for the victims and solidarity against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry and hate.

On this first yahrzeit, efforts are being made to mark the anniversary in a way that not only takes note of the shooting but also inspires positive action to reduce gun violence. Using the hashtag #LightsofHopeSTL, groups are encouraging congregations to make the Tree of Life killings the subject of Shabbat sermons and other gatherings. And they want individuals to light candles of remembrance this weekend.

In addition, AJC (American Jewish Committee) is encouraging people to #ShowUpForShabbat at synagogues in St. Louis and around the world Friday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Oct. 26, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. The list of synagogues in St. Louis participating in this movement continues to grow;  Congregation B’nai Amoona, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Kol Rinah Congregation, Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, Temple Israel, Temple Emanuel and United Hebrew Congregation, are among the first synagogues to sign on.

In Pittsburgh, leaders envision a campaign to turn the tragedy into an inspirational experience, with possible construction of a center of Jewish life in the United States on the site of the building in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Such a fitting tribute would come in the wake of a number of positive gun control actions over the past year, after not only the Tree of Life shooting but one at a synagogue Poway, Calif., that killed one person and injured three at the end of Passover earlier this year.

Among the highest profile actions was the decision by Walmart to stop selling ammunition for use in military-style weapons and bar customers from openly carrying firearms in its stores. A shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August killed 22 people. The massacre is being investigated as a possible case of domestic terrorism.

The moves by Walmart and other retailers in response to the revulsion generated by such horrific crimes are welcome signs that mass shootings may prompt more than well-meaning but ineffectual thoughts and prayers. Of course we must continueto remember and honor the dead. But we mustalso take action to protect theliving, with the enactment of commonsense gun laws.  

Recent polls show convincinglythat 70 percent to 80 percentof Americans support universalbackground checks and a banon assault weapons. Thosepercentages are nearly identicalamong gun owners, hunters andeven members of theNational Rifle Association.

Yes, let us honor the namesof the murdered Jews ofPittsburgh and Poway. Let us never forget. But we the living must continue to press Congress and state legislaturesto enact measures that make our remembrances truly have meaning.