I was walking somewhere I was afraid to go, even though I had been there many times before. But I had not been to a religious service at the Tree of Life synagogue—where my husband is the rabbi of New Light Congregation—in more than 30 days, since a shooter killed 11 people in that spot.
Though it was not quite 6 o’clock on Sunday evening, the first night of Hanukkah, the winter darkness enveloped my neighborhood. I walked past the shopping district, the dry cleaners, my dentist’s office, and the home of my husband’s college roommate. All was familiar, yet I was scared to be outside in the open air with a group of Jews. If we had been targeted inside, where our Torah scrolls and prayer books were and where we were not being public about our faith, wouldn’t this be a provocation, a taunt to anti-Semites, wherever they lurk, to come and get us? A therapist told me to use my rational mind and remember that this was the only event of its kind, the only synagogue shooting that had happened in the United States. That is true, but when it happens at your own place of worship, statistics and rationality take a back seat to raw fear.
As I walked down Shady Avenue, approaching the corner of Wilkins, I saw the police barricades at Northumberland Street, a block before the synagogue. I told a police officer that I was glad to see him, and that I was scared to be here. He told me I did not need to be afraid.
That has been the message I have gotten in so many ways over the past few weeks. Three members of New Light were killed; my husband, Jonathan Perlman, survived with two others by hiding in a storage closet. The day of the shooting, one of my husband’s former chaplain-field-placement students came to the house—not because she knew that my husband had been in the building that morning, but because she knew he was a rabbi in Squirrel Hill. She was concerned about his well-being and that of his family, whether he had been directly affected or not. Her African-American Baptist-faith tradition includes spontaneous prayer, so she and her uncle stood with me, my husband, and my daughter in a circle. We held hands, and she prayed. It was the most comforting thing the three of us experienced that Shabbat, before we headed off at its conclusion in the darkness to the Jewish Community Center, to be with the families of the dead as they were formally notified of their losses by the FBI.