By Miriam Steinberg-Egeth
Jewish tradition provides us with vast blueprints for life cycle events, even the devastating, tragic ones, and when a person dies, these systems help create order in the middle of crisis. We have formulas for what to say when you greet a mourner, seven days of sitting shiva for the deceased, 30 days of mourning for a spouse or sibling, a year of mourning for a parent. Each of these structures supports mourners as they gradually rejoin normal life, though for many mourners, life will never be the same.
We have reached the end of shloshim, the 30 days of mourning, for the victims of the violent and destructive shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Regardless of our personal connections to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, to some extent, we are all mourners in the aftermath of this unspeakable horror. For me, and for many of the 200 people who attended the Evening of Learning in Remembrance of the Victims of Pittsburgh, organized by the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia last week, life will never be the same.
When I found out about the violent and tragic events at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, I felt the ground fall out from underneath me. While I have no immediate ties to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, my life revolves around bringing Jews together, celebrating the joys of Jewish community and encouraging people to find opportunities to engage in Jewish life. The horror of Jews, just across the state, being murdered on a Shabbat morning in synagogue forever altered the sanctity of the Jewish institutions I care about so much and threatened my personal and professional stability in ways that had previously seemed impossible.
Over the course of the past month, through numerous vigils, security briefings, conversations with friends and opportunities to provide counsel to members of the community, I have tried to figure out how to be a Jew and a Jewish professional, and how to redefine Jewish life in this new era that no one wanted. The Evening of Learning, which I was honored to coordinate through my work with the Board of Rabbis, helped me regain my own footing, and, I think, did the same for others who were there.
The event, which took place at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Nov. 26, with support from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, coincided with a similar event happening in Pittsburgh. While the Board of Rabbis typically focuses on events that bring together rabbis from across the Philadelphia region, these unprecedented tragedies led to unprecedented responses. Through this Evening of Learning, the rabbinic leadership of the Board of Rabbis provided the opportunity for a broad cross section of the Philadelphia Jewish community to gather in sorrow, to provide comfort and to mark these 30 difficult days.
One way Jewish tradition honors the deceased is through empowering the living to learn Torah in their memory. The Evening of Learning began with singing and with Rabbi Joshua Waxman, president of the Board of Rabbis, welcoming the assembled group and introducing the concept of memorial learning. Rabbi Sandy Rosenthal Berliner shared powerful and heart-wrenching memories of her cousins, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were murdered in Pittsburgh. The group rose together to listen to El Malei Rachamim, the Memorial Prayer.
Then, for the next two hours, participants attended breakout sessions led by 17 local rabbis representing all denominations and regions of the community. Wide-ranging topics included chanting, writing as spiritual practice, the history of anti-Semitism, self-care in difficult times and Talmudic text studies. Offerings also included museum tours and opportunities to hear reflections from rabbis with personal ties to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
Though people cried and hugged each other as the gathering began, when the event ended, I was struck by the number of participants who remarked how positive the experience had been, how glad they were to be there and even how much fun they had. Despite horrific tragedies, or perhaps because of them, our community found strength from coming together, from learning Torah, from rabbinic leadership.
Several participants said some version of, “Let’s do this again soon, but for happier reasons.” I hope many attendees are moved to learn more about the topics they studied at the Evening of Learning, to celebrate Chanukah to its fullest and to connect with Jewish life in a way that honors the memory of those who were killed. Though there can be no upside to a mass shooting, no silver lining to anti-Semitism, and though there are so many ways in which our world is broken, coming together can bolster all of us and remind us that our traditions and our fellow Jews can be the stable ground we need.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth works for the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and the Center City Kehillah. She is the writer of Miriam’s Advice Well for the Jewish Exponent.