OPED: ‘For the dead and the living’

Elana Rabinowitz
Tribune News Service
FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2017, file photo, Rabbi Joshua Bolton of the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel center surveys damaged headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. The shooting rampage that killed more than 10 people at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, is being decried as the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Yet the carnage, however unprecedented, is not an aberration: Year after year, decade after decade, anti-Semitism proves to be among the most entrenched and pervasive forms of hatred and bigotry in the United States. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

“All Jews must die!”

These were the words that echoed in the chaos of the mass shooting that took place Saturday in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Witnesses say this was what Robert Bowers shouted just before he opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding six more.

The temple was packed. The morning services were shared with a sacred Jewish tradition, the bris (or brit) milah, a circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel on the eighth day of a male infant’s life. The procedure involves the gentle removal of the foreskin, along with prayers, some wine and food, all celebrating a child’s entrance into the covenant.

But on this Saturday, Bowers allegedly came to the synagogue with an AR-15 and three handguns, with a mind full of hate. Most of the 11 people killed at the congregation were seniors, including a 66-year-old man who happens to share my last name. (Jerry Rabinowitz, a doctor known for his compassionate treatment of HIV patients, was apparently killed as he rushed to help.)

Today I am in mourning for the innocent lives taken and for those born into a world filled with such venom. We have always known that some members of the outside world may not accept us, but the one sanctity we have, that we have fought to obtain — after centuries of persecution — is the sacred temple. If that now too has become a place we don’t feel safe, where can we congregate?

Growing up Jewish in New York City, I rarely felt the vehement hatred that I do now. Most of the animosity I experienced was an occasional inappropriate joke about Jews and money. But when I left the bubble, I saw a world of swastikas and white supremacists. I saw Spanish synagogues with armed guards. And I realized that we are in fact a minority. I realized we were still hated. And that is a tough pill to swallow.

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I have always been proud of who I am, especially because of the sacrifices my ancestors made. The past is an essential part of my identity. But the tragedy in Pittsburgh reminds me of what lies on the other side. I hope that the families growing up in the dark cloud of anti-Semitism will eventually find peace.

I am sickened by the events in Pittsburgh and haunted by its aftermath. I wish I had some magic words to ease the pain. But I do not. All I feel is sadness, and dissonance.

As is symbolized in the bris and many other Jewish traditions, we are taught that from the moment we are born to the moment we die we will live with pain and sacrifice. In between, I hope the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting were filled with love, not hate.

Their lives were taken senselessly on the holiest of ground. This will never be forgotten. As Elie Wiesel said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

— Elana Rabinowitz is a middle-school teacher and a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, affiliated with The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.