My Pittsburgh Synagogue Is Still Grappling With the Fragility of Life

Congregants found their own ways to honor those who had been killed.

Tree of Life Synagogue
Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

I was telling an interviewer from an Israeli radio station of all the things the New Light Congregation had been doing to honor our three congregants who were among the 11 killed in the October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven of our congregants who had always wanted to really work at learning to read Hebrew had finally begun to do so. Others were learning the special notes that guide readers in chanting the prophetic readings that are sung at each Sabbath and holiday service.

My 15-year-old niece, a trombone player, learned to blow the shofar. She performed the ritual blast for the congregation because the man who had done it in the past was no longer in this world. My interviewer, unaccustomed to the non-Orthodox synagogues where women participate fully in the services, was amazed that a girl could do this. Yes, I tell her.

Some of the changes were more personal. One man in the synagogue obtained the bariatric surgery he had been considering and lost more than 40 pounds. The weight that has literally been lifted from him has also transformed him. He seems happier, living the way he wants, freed of what he had acquired over the years.

“They are fulfilling their dreams now?” the interviewer for Israeli radio asked me, in Hebrew.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. I have to think quickly to respond to her in Hebrew, so I say yes. But once I have more time to reflect, I think about how hard that metaphor is to translate. The Hebrew words mean “to realize, to implement, to personify,” according to Morfix. Even-Shoshan, the standard Hebrew dictionary, says the phrase means “to bring a thing to reality or to concretize an idea, make it tangible.”

When there has been a shooting in your midst and you realize that every ordinary thing you do could be your last, you want to live with intention and intensity. The fragility of life has been highlighted; I have never been so grateful for the presence of my husband in my life and the lives of our children and community. I realize that I can’t imagine my life without him, shuddering to think how easily it could have happened for him to have been taken.

I feel like I have always tried to fulfill my dreams and live in consonance with my values. But for me, that is one of the important things I have learned this year—not to put off doing the things that I want to do, that I think are important to do, and that I would like to do.

I now make more of an effort to get to the Phipps Conservatory in each season because I know that the loveliness won’t always be extant. I recently saw a painting at the San Diego Museum of Art made by Rachel Ruysch in 1689. Hidden within the beauty of the flowers is the hint of decomposition to come—the insects lurking in the background or the edge of the flower just beginning to rot—showing that even things that appear to be skillfully and permanently installed on the canvas are actually prone to decay.

Flowers are especially important to me because their beauty is so evanescent; they seem more precious to me now. This week I gave flowers to a friend having a birthday; to my mother-in-law, who has been sick; and to a family that hosted guests who had come to lead the parts of the Rosh Hashanah service that had been led in prior years by one of those killed in the shooting.

Every culture has a sense of how proximity to death forces us to live life in a more meaningful way. The bitter edge of knowing that all can end at any moment enables the sweetness to be savored when there are happy and pleasant things.

As the therapist and Atlantic contributing writer Lori Gottlieb, author of the new book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, recently wrote, “You can’t be a therapist and not be oriented toward a core. Without getting morbid, you do focus on mortality. You start thinking about the limited time you have on this planet, and how we generally don’t know how much time we have, and how that very thought drives us to find purpose. What will contribute to my growth, and what to other people’s growth?”

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yochanan, who lost 10 sons and carried around a bone from the tenth. He would show that bone to other mourners, telling them of his own suffering. On its face, the story seems not only macabre, but also insensitive—why respond to someone who is suffering by producing evidence that your own pain is even greater?

On a recent Saturday, Daniel Wasserman, the rabbi who headed the Hevra Kadisha—the organization that cleansed the synagogue of the human remains of the bodies of the victims at Tree of Life so that any fragment could receive proper dignified burial—spoke at a local synagogue to share a different way to understand the story. What Rabbi Yochanan intended to convey was: I have borne pain, I have suffered, and now I am ready to be with you in your pain. His suffering had given him a broader capacity for compassion.

In Pittsburgh, a year later, we are all fulfilling our dreams—bringing things to reality, making them tangible—with a rekindled awareness of our own fragility, and a renewed compassion for those around us.