Valley Voices

Death at ‘The Tree of Life’ makes us ask: how many more shootings must we have?

Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh stand outside Beth Shalom Synagogue after attending the funeral service for Joyce Fienberg, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Joyce Fienberg, 75, was one of 11 people killed when a gunman opened fire during worship services at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27.
Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh stand outside Beth Shalom Synagogue after attending the funeral service for Joyce Fienberg, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Joyce Fienberg, 75, was one of 11 people killed when a gunman opened fire during worship services at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27. AP

On the Saturday morning of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, we were on a get-away weekend at the coast. It wasn’t until we returned home that we learned of our six-degrees-of-separation connection to the horrible event.

We checked into our motel Friday afternoon and then had our annual celebratory reunion dinner with my high school friend from New York and her husband, who live in San Luis Obispo.

The next morning we were horrified to see the shootings unfold on TV. The heavily armed police, the people running to and fro, the aerial shots of the synagogue, have become all too familiar to Americans. But as Jews we were even more struck and upset by the killers’ anti-Semitic remarks. A combination of deep sorrow, anger and frustration caused our tears and fears to flow.

Then we remembered that our rabbi at a temple to which we had belonged in Connecticut three decades ago had moved to Pittsburgh. But we couldn’t remember the name of the synagogue with which he was associated. With a fairly large Jewish community, Pittsburgh has a number of temples. The name of the rabbi of the ironically named “Tree of Life” synagogue was not mentioned on television, so we convinced ourselves it was someone else.

“Our” rabbi had worked at a temple near New Haven where we had lived. Then a young man, the rabbi, his wife and two children lived near us. Our daughter, then a teenager, was frequently called upon to be the babysitter for their two young children. My husband knew the rabbi well because he served as chairman of the temple’s Hebrew school and was happy to be an occasional adviser to the rabbi and a substitute teacher on some Sundays. After we moved from the area we heard that some years later the rabbi had taken a prestigious position as senior rabbi at a large temple in Pittsburgh.

When we came home Sunday evening we were overwhelmed at the messages of support we had received from friends and Jewish agencies around the world. The names of the victims had been released and information was revealed with details about how the shooting had unfolded.

After being spotted by the SWAT police, the shooter ran up to the third floor where he attempted to hide out in an office. That is where he received multiple gun wounds from the police. On television news we learned that the office was that of the rabbi emeritus, who in fact was our Connecticut rabbi, now retired after 23 years at Tree of Life. It was his habit to go to services and his office every Saturday morning. On that particular day, his wife was ill and he decided to stay home and comfort her. The information was given by his son, himself now a rabbi in Florida and one of the children for whom our daughter had been the babysitter. If his wife had not been ill, our former rabbi would have been in his third floor office and likely would now be dead or injured. Such is fate.

We listened to police, government officials and TV pundits discussing this tragedy. There was agreement on the country’s divisive climate that has led to repeated instances of mass shootings. Some thought armed guards need to be placed in schools, houses of worship and other gathering places. Others thought this was impossible, impractical and antithetical to a democratic way of life. There was a call for tighter gun laws and arguments against them. There was a call for greater awareness of mental health needs and resources to deal with them. The importance of being alert to signs of potential violence on social media or in everyday life was stressed: the individual implicated in sending 14 pipe bombs to officials had photos of his enemies plastered on his car with crosshairs on their faces. Didn’t anyone think of saying something to authorities?

These viewpoints have been stated many times over after every mass shooting. And still nothing happens. It is far past the time when we should have addressed the hate-mongering, divisiveness and gun violence that has taken over our nation. How many more explosions do we need?

Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and a full-time community volunteer. She can be reached at fmfarber@hotmail.com

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