Pittsburgh and The Tree of Life

October 29 – November 4, 2018


Vigil for victims of shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue – intersection of Forbes and Murray, Squirrel Hill


I can’t write about food this week – and, in retrospect, I’m sorry that I did last week.

I should mention that I love Pittsburgh.  I have lived here, except for college and the army, my whole life.  It was my entire world for the first five years of my life.  And even after we began vacationing at the Jersey Shore, only Pittsburgh seemed real to me, Jersey being a wonderland of beach and waves, miniature golf, and boardwalk.

After books, the Pittsburgh Pirates were my first obsession (pro football was a secondary sport in the 1950s), Pittsburgh’s mayors (Lawrence and Barr) formed my picture of public officials, and its tree-lined streets supplied what will always be my vision of domestic peace and order.

All of you who follow the blog from outside Pittsburgh have, now, a sharper sense of our city after the tragedy that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27th.  The raw tide of sorrow and anger that numbed us for a week or so, has ebbed a bit, though the thought of what happened still catches at the back of the throat and the corners of the eyes from time to time and the sadness rushes back.  But the rage has faded, as will the little man who gave himself to evil and caused the tragedy.

We (I and most Pittsburghers) thought that, like hurricanes (coastal), tornadoes (the great plains), ice storms (D.C.), terrorism (giant metropolises, not mid-sized cities) we were exempt from such evil.  Our insular security has proven to be foolish.  No place is exempt from evil and hate.  But when you think of our city, which you will do because of this tragedy, I’d suggest that you also think of the good people from all faiths or no faith, but most especially the Jewish faith, who came together to help each other through this time.  Jeffrey Meyers, Rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue was magnificent – brave, during the shooting, and eloquent and unifying afterward in interviews and at a county-wide memorial.  God only knows how he was able to keep himself together through all of that.

I’ve copied a letter from David Zubik, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh below.  He and Rabbi Bisnos (Rodef Shalom, a Pittsburgh landmark), are good friends (I attended an event where the Rabbi gave an award to the Bishop), and he knew the two brothers who died.  Cecil and David Rosenthal were, 59 and 54 years old, respectively, but were really just boys, being developmentally disabled.  “The boys” is what everyone called them, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, who got to know them because their sister was Community Relations Director for the organization and because the boys were great fans.  The giant pall-bearer who looked like a Viking at their funeral was Bret Kiesel, former Defensive End of the Steelers.

Please remember that for every warped and lost soul, like the shooter, there are tens of thousands of decent souls, and hundreds of very good ones, carrying on the work of charity or worshipping God in small or large groups or gathering to watch the Steelers or the Pirates or the Penguins or to have dinner with friends and family or to listen to the Pittsburgh Symphony.  Remembering that reminds me that the world can be a very good place indeed.  Into that good world evil comes from time to time and tragedy follows, but the good world grieves and heals.

I lived in Squirrel Hill, and the neighboring communities of Regent Square and Point Breeze, for 25 years.  I will not forget where I was that morning (buying bread at the Five Points Bakery in Point Breeze, two blocks away), or the horror that unfolded.  I keep getting flashes of those two brothers, little boys, dying together, but I know that will fade away in time.  I hope, however, that I will remember Mayor Bill Peduto’s words and the actions of our public safety personnel and, above all, the huge crowds of people who came together to mourn and console and dedicate themselves to never letting this happen again.

Bishop David A. Zubik:

 ‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted’ Let us mourn the dead, bind our wounds and renew our resolve to be ‘Pursuers of Peace’

 Letter of 11/5 from Bishop David A. Zubik to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On Saturday, Oct. 27, I had just celebrated Mass for about 1,000 women at the Catholic Women’s Conference when a priest whispered news of a shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. I asked the women to pray, only to learn that one of them, Peg Durachko, was certain that her husband, Richard Gottfried, was in the synagogue. He was among the 11 murdered.

I knew Rich and Peg well, as they had accompanied me and my good friend, Rabbi Aaron Bisno, on a “Pursuers of Peace” interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They had renewed their wedding vows at Cana in Galilee, site of the wedding where Jesus had worked his first miracle. Rich was supportive of Peg’s Catholic faith. Together they taught marriage preparation courses at her parish and volunteered at the Catholic Charities Free Health Center dental clinic.

Rich embodied the phrase “Pursuer of Peace,” words drawn from Psalm 34: 14-15, 19:

Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking lies.

Turn from evil and do good; …

seek peace and pursue it.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,

And saves those whose spirits are crushed.

Two other people dear to me perished at Tree of Life. Cecil and David Rosenthal were the sons of my good friends Eliezer and Joy Rosenthal, whose love and support for their children with intellectual disabilities has shown me the meaning and blessings of devotion.

This massacre is both deeply personal and a dire warning for all of us to end the toxic madness that is engulfing our society.

We are all tempted to do evil with our tongues, whether through lies, gossip or malice. These murders show what lies, gossip and malice can lead to. The shooter acted upon lies about Jews and immigrants.

Christians and Jews believe that God calls us to love our neighbor. Jesus defined “neighbor” as someone so different from us that society might define them as “the enemy.” No one can be excluded from our love because no one is excluded from God’s love.

Whenever you or I read or hear something that tempts us to anger against a person or group, we are called to love them instead. And when Jesus spoke of “love,” he meant taking action to help them.

When we recognize the inherent human dignity of a person with whom we disagree, then we “pursue peace.” That phrase from the psalm is closely associated with Rodef Shalom Congregation, where my friend Rabbi Bisno serves. It also exemplifies the life of another treasured Jewish colleague, Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life.

Rabbi Berkun has been a leader in Catholic-Jewish relations at the highest level, so Tree of Life has hosted many interfaith events. One of the most prominent was in 2000, when 400 people of all faiths called for gun-control measures. Rabbi Berkun taught a generation of Catholic high school students about Judaism and anti-Semitism. And he worked with then-Bishop Donald Wuerl to establish Holocaust memorials at our own St. Paul Seminary and at the Vatican.

The murders at the synagogue must be considered in the context of the Holocaust. While any act of contempt or violence against a person because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation or cultural identity is a grievous sin, anti-Jewish bigotry is set apart. The murder of 6 million Jews in Europe during World War II manifested the lowest depth to which human depravity can sink.

The people who reached those depths were, for the most part, “civilized” people who had been raised as Christians. Some had renounced their faith, but many twisted it to the point that they could ignore Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. They chose political propaganda over the Word of God. Their twisted beliefs made them callous as millions of Jews were persecuted, rounded up and deported — with most going to their deaths — before their very eyes.

That is why any response to such violence must begin by searching our own hearts. Against whom do we harbor anger, resentment or contempt? Even when our anger seems justified, God calls us to repent of it and love the person in question. Unbelievers may likewise choose to turn from anger and to reach out in kindness to those they might be tempted to resent.

It is natural to ask where God is in times such as these. But God did not cause this massacre; a man did. This was the act of someone who had hardened his heart to God’s Word and to the image of God in each and every human being.

The traditional Jewish prayer for those who have died, the Kaddish, is an offering of praise to the Lord, a reminder of His presence in even the hardest of times.

A mourner who prays Kaddish must do so in a gathering of at least 10 people. This practice of our Jewish sisters and brothers should remind us how important it is to have the support of a community of faith when we grieve — and to offer support to others.

As we remember all those who died at Tree of Life — those who mourn them and those who are struggling to recover from their wounds — may we come together in love, in prayer and in a solemn resolution to be “pursuers of peace.”

10 thoughts on “Pittsburgh and The Tree of Life

  1. Great and eloquent post, Bill!! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was at a funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral on October 27, 2018. I lived in Squirrel Hill for almost 30 years. I will remember that day as long as I live.
    Kathy Murray💚💜💙

  2. Bill: I was most impressed with your eloquence with regards to your history in Pittsburgh as well as our tragic event. Lila

    Lila Decker, R.N.
    Senior Patient Services Coordinator
    Office of the President
    Forbes Tower
    Suite 11050
    200 Lothrop Street
    Pittsburgh, PA 15213
    T 412/647-4845
    F 412/578-9555

  3. Bill, that was an awesome peice and so beautifully composed.
    Yes, still hard to believe this honorable act was practically in our back yard.
    Thank you🐇😘

  4. Very thoughtful and glad you shared this. Even those outside of Pittsburgh, have been grieving. Not just those of us from Pittsburgh or who have lived there, but many that we know who never have experienced this wonderful city.
    We all pray for peace.

  5. Great commentary Bill. Hopefully, more people will re-evaluate thier thinking in these turbulent times and choose to love not hate, uunderstand and not condemn, their neighbors

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