WU Students plant tree in solidarity with Tree of Life

Kayla Steinberg

By Kayla Steinberg

When gunman Robert Bowers fired on the Tree of Life congregation late last month, he shook the whole tree, from the roots in Pittsburgh to the branches of Jewish communities across the world. At Washington University, Bowers struck close to the root—several Wash U. students are members of Tree of Life and residents of Pittsburgh. The campus supported these students in the wake of the tragedy that killed 11 and wounded six people, and stood in solidarity with Pittsburgh.

Senior Sophie Abo and graduate student Henry Cohen are practically neighbors of Tree of Life. Sophie went there for many b’nai mitzvot, and Cohen is a member of the synagogue. “It’s very much so a centerpiece of the community,” he said of the synagogue.

Both Abo and Cohen were deeply affected by the shooting. Cohen’s father Dr. Jeff Cohen, who is president of Allegheny Health Hospital, treated Bowers at the hospital.

“One of the only uplifting stories that’s come out of this entire thing is that the Jewish hospital president and two Jewish nurses took care of this guy who just shot up the temple I grew up in,” said Cohen.

Senior Zach Moskow lost his cousins David and Cecil Rosenthal, two of the 11 Tree of Life congregants murdered that Shabbat morning. His great-aunt Jeanne Rosenthal missed services for the first time in five or six years.

Just hours after the shooting, senior Monica Sass began working with Hillel staff members to plan a community gathering for the following day. Sass knew many Tree of Life members from USY, so she wanted to put together USY-esque zmirot (songs) to be sung at the gathering.

One hundred students and staff – Jewish and non-Jewish – filed into Wash U. Hillel Sunday night, Oct. 28, including Lori White, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. During the event, White sang Louis Armstrong’s “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

The singing continued as Sass and first-year student Scott Massey led the emotional group in Hebrew and English songs. The event concluded with the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Reflecting on the event, Sass said: “I think it went really well. It feels weird to say ‘it went well.’ It shouldn’t have had to go at all.”

“This was my second time at Hillel and Henry’s first time at Hillel,” Abo said. “It’s crazy that it took a mass shooting to bring us there.

“I found it comforting to be in a group of people who were also grieving and to be surrounded by familiar songs and ideas,” she continued. “Also, I was really impressed by the presence of non-Jews at the [event]. This violence happens to other communities all the time, and coming out of this is making me a lot more empathetic and aware of what’s going on in other communities.”

Wash U. wanted to do more. Hillel, Chabad, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Interfaith Campus Ministries Association jointly planned a larger community gathering and tree planting event for Wednesday, Oct. 31.

Hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish Wash U. students and staff gathered in the middle of a campus parking lot. Passing cars and students slowed as they looked at the throng and the small oak resting on the side of the road.

The lineup of speakers included Wash U. Chancellor Mark Wrighton, Chabad’s Rabbi Hershey Novack and Hillel’s Rabbi Jordan Gerson “RJ.” The speeches centered around the theme of radical love.

“Baseless love, free love, radical love has the power to build,” said RJ. “This gathering is an act of radical love.”

Wrighton, who sent an email to all students the day of the shooting urging campus to “stand together against hate, bigotry and prejudice,” discussed the significance of planting the tree.

“This is an extremely difficult time for our country,” he said. “But what we’re doing today by gathering in unity is working to make this world a better place. I hope that when we return in 15 years, we see not only a beautiful tree but a beautiful country.”

Sass found the tree planting to be a powerful message in the wake of the shooting. “The act of planting a tree is so beautiful, especially given that it takes so long to bloom,” she said. I think it really speaks to the University’s commitment to remember this and to keep this in mind going forward.”

After the speeches, students grabbed shovels and blanketed the tree’s roots with dirt.

Yet the campus response to the shooting did not end with last Wednesday’s event. Students continued to reflect—through Facebook posts, through op-eds in Wash U.’s campus newspaper Student Life and through Jewish learning initiatives. Though this tree was shaken, it remains strong.

Kayla Steinberg, 21, is a junior at Washington University majoring in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology and minoring in writing and Jewish studies. Steinberg writes for the Wash U. newspaper Student Life and Washington University Political Review. She grew up in Bedford, N.H. and is pursuing a career in journalism.