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I Knew Them, and so Did You

Why the Tragic Shooting at Tree of Life Has so Deeply Affected the Jewish Community at Large

By Rachel EstepPublished 6 years ago 7 min read

In the days following the heart-wrenching attack on Tree Of Life Synagogue, many of us in the Jewish Community found ourselves emotionally shaken, mentally drained, and in a fog of emotions that we're struggling to make sense of. We're in such a deep state of mourning, while trying to remain steadfast and assured of our own strength. We feel ready to cry and at the same time, ready to fight. We cry for lost loved ones, and we cry for justice. All the while, the world continues to turn and it doesn't quite make sense. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows this feeling. You are grieving and you can't move on and yet life just keeps on impossibly going. That's what it's like for us now.

We have lost loved ones.

We are a culture of warmth. We are soft music and the smell of fried potato pancakes while children laugh. We are a costume parade of children through the hallways of the synagogue in April. We are a cool fall evening filled with joy and song as we dance in our parking lots. We are home cooked meals eaten outside surrounded by decorations that our children hand made in school. We are the smell of baking bread on Friday nights. We give our pocket change little by little to a small box on the table until its full, then we donate it to someone who needs it. We pack up boxes of cookies and candies and we deliver them to our friends and family on Purim because we are commanded to be kind. We welcome strangers to our passover tables because we were strangers in Egypt and we do not want anyone to ever feel like a stranger in our homes.

We are warm people. We are gentle people. We are kind people. We are the people you search for when you think "I wish I had a family," because we are always willing to make you ours. We are, at the end of the day, each other's family.

I have been to Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. At 12 years old, I attended a regional NCSY retreat there. I shared in their shabbat services, I spent the weekend in the guest room of a congregation member's home. I made friends with their youth, and I remember nothing more than I remember joy. I never once felt like I was out of place, nor did I feel like I was a foreign town. Everything was familiar, as if this was my home. Did I personally meet or know any of the victims of this tragedy? The truth is, I don't know. I met so many people that weekend, I went on so many other retreats in my youth, it would be impossible to remember every name and face. My heart is no less broken.

I may not have known them in person, but I certainly knew them in spirit, as every single Jew did. They were our grandparents, and our grandparents' friends. They were the first faces we saw when we walked into shul, because they always were a little too early. They were the people who showed up to make sure we had a minyan on the yahrzeits of our loved ones. People who watched us grow up and made us think hard about what we might name our future children, should they no longer be with us. They squeezed our cheeks and they told us we were cute, they read us childhood stories of Noah and his ark, of Eve and her Apple, they taught me the Hebrew alphabet while I crawled around the floor of their homes while my own grandmother talked for too long to make a six year old happy.

They were the elders. They were the handers down of tradition, our very first teachers. They held our favorite recipes, stories, songs, in their minds. Think of your own church in your mind. It does not matter what religion, this is universal. Did you not grow up with the same types of people? Of course you did, and now picture their faces in your head and remember—these are the lives that were taken from us.

We cannot just move on because the pain of their loss is too real to us. We feel it to our very cores in a way that is no longer hypothetical. These deaths were real to every single one of us.

In addition, it felt like the death of safety. A safety we never truly had, but we liked to live under the umbrella of ignorance if only for our own peace of mind. We no longer can, certainly not when reality has opened the door in our faces and presented itself so brutally. This tragedy was the death of stillness and silence. Even those of us who didn't favor ignorance generally live in a state of quite. The mundane anti-semitism we all face gets brushed aside as a part of our everyday lives because it's nothing that is threatening our lives. Except, now it is, and now our silence can no longer stand, and for some of us this is a hard pill to swallow.

We are prepared to fight, but we are not fighters. We are warriors, blood-soaked for centuries, but an army made up of teachers, mothers, bakers, storytellers, and children. Our serenity, however fleeting it may have been, was our safe zone, and that has once again been stolen from us.

As a teenager, I faced anti-semitism and found good people to surround myself with, to have my back. It warms my heart to see this on a larger level as people come out in droves to stand in solidarity with my community across the country.

I see this politicized and I just want to cry. This is not a political issue. This is about hatred and violence. I want to scream. To beg them to stop using the deaths of our loved ones to further their political ideologies. It's a shame to their memory. I never forget that we are unwelcome on both sides of the political spectrum. I never forget that we don't quite have an emotional home. With you reading this, yes, I see you, supporting us, loving us, opening your arms, but the grand scheme of things leaves no room for us. My small republican hometown ostracized me for being a Jew, but my anti-Israel democratic acquaintances seem to hold the same hatred.

In our current social and political climate, to feel as if the hatred of Jews is the one thing that the two political parties agree on strikes a fear in my heart so deep that I freeze. I don't know where to go or what to do with that. I'm writing this, and I'm at a loss for words.

My dentist is Jewish. I mention this to make a point, so stay with me. 75 percent of Americans report being afraid of the dentist and I am not one of them. I run into my dentist and the synagogue sometimes and he tells me to smile and then scold me for not wearing my retainer. Then we eat, because no one likes food more than we do, and he asks about my baby, and we move on with our conversation. When I walk into the dentist's office a few weeks later, he already knows that I haven't been wearing my retainer, that I eat an uncanny amount of sugar, and that sometimes I forget to brush my teeth before bed. I am not afraid of his judgement. He asks me about my job and we chat until its time for me to be quiet so he can look at my mouth.

The doctor who ran some of my earliest tests during my pregnancies was Jewish too. I was terrified, a newly expecting first-time mom, having a complicated pregnancy. Also, when you are pregnant, there's nothing personal anymore, your body is on display for everyone. I hated it. For these tests though, I was safe. I did not cry in the exam rooms, I went alone without my husband to hold my hand. This doctor was a comfort.This doctor raised my best friend and fed me dinner at 13 years old before I learned about haircare and before I got my braces off. This doctor was someone I could trust to make sure no harm came to me or my baby.

I could say similar things for more significant people in my life. At 1.7 percent of the American population, we tend to know each other, and even when we don't we're no more than maybe 3 degrees of separation. The point is that we, our community, our people, we are each other's families. Not by blood, not by marriage, but simply by spirit. In Judaism, we have a term for it. Mishpacha. Directly, it translates to "family" but it means more than that. It's family in the greater picture, a much broader sense of the term.

The victims is Pittsburg were Mishpacha. I'm sorry if we post too much, or we seem stuck on the tragedy, or you are tired of hearing about it. I'm sorry, but no, we cannot move on yet.

We are still mourning.

We will finish our mourning eventually. The grief will become easier to bear as it always does with death. Life will continue, but it's unlikely that our silence will easily come back to us. As I said, that's dead now too.

We will mourn. Then we will stand.

Hazak, Hazak, Venit Hazek.


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    Rachel EstepWritten by Rachel Estep

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