Reflections on Tragedy and Resilience in Pittsburgh
Dr. Ari Berman, President
Vigil for Pittsburgh
James Striar School
Gail (Giti) Bendheim ’91F
Susan Jacobs Jablow ’99S
Shoshi (Mollie) Butler ’06S
Center for the Jewish Future
Dr. Nancy Beckerman, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Zahava Farbman MSW LCSW, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and Dr. David Fox, Psychologist
Lisa Henshaw MSW, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Dr. Rona Novick, Dean, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies
Bonnie Pollak, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Dr. Ari Berman, President, Yeshiva University
We were all stunned and grieved when we heard the news yesterday. We stand tonight in mourning over the loss of our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh and we join in prayer for the full recovery of those in the congregation who were injured. The rabbis teach us that the Jewish people are like one body and when one side is cut, we are all in pain.
This heinous, murderous attack on the Tree of Life synagogue is a reminder that even in this day and age anti-Semitism still has the power to poison minds. It is a reminder that we do not have the luxury of ignoring this most ancient of hatreds. We must fight it wherever we find it. We must be vigilant.
But as we remember our brothers and sisters who were attacked, we also think of the four police officers who were wounded rushing into save them, and we pray for their speedy recovery. They remind us that this era is different than those that have come before. Today, we have partners and friends. At this time, it is natural to focus on the challenges confronting America today—and there are challenges, and we must be alert and determined in fighting those who rise against us. But we must also be mindful of the blessing that is America. That we have partners, like our officials and representatives who are with us tonight. And together we must battle not just the evils of anti-Semitism but all racism and bigotry as they rear their ugly heads in this generation.
And this, in truth, speaks to the broader mission of the Jewish people: to partner with all of humanity to impact our society and to better our world. This is an era in which the Jewish mission can truly take root.
Let us seize this profound moment of grief to redouble our efforts and join together in our fight against hatred, rebuilding our communities and transforming the world for the better. May Hashem bless our efforts, heal the injured and grant comfort to the bereaved.
Hadassah Penn, Stern College for Women
It rained in Pittsburgh, last Sunday. The air was cold, colder than New York, and it shocked me after the six-hour drive. When we arrived at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, it was already full of people. There was no room to sit inside, or even to stand in the aisle, so we stood outside with hundreds of others. It was freezing, and I noticed people without umbrellas—without coats, even—but nobody complained or turned to leave. This unwavering support, I learned, is typical of the Pittsburgh community, and especially of Squirrel Hill.
Last Shabbat, a gunman massacred 11 men and women inside Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue. The next day, thousands of people gathered for a vigil to grieve, to show support, and to comfort one another. Thanks to Yeshiva University, I was able to attend this ceremony, along with several of my peers. This was my first time in Pittsburgh. It’s a lovely place, cozy and green and inviting.
Pittsburgh is also diverse. Lots of what America is, these days, but what makes Pittsburgh special is the respect and harmony between the different communities. Standing outside Memorial Hall in a crowd of thousands, the community bond was so warm and so tangible that I barely noticed the rain and chill.
Fittingly, the vigil was interfaith, just like those in attendance. Jewish leaders spoke; representatives from Pittsburgh’s Christian and Muslim communities condemned the attack and pledged their support as well. Rev. Liddy Barlow promised, “We will cry with you. We will resist anti-Semitism and all hatred with you…We will do that because you are our neighbors but more because you are our friends and, still more, because you are our family. We love you, and we are so sorry.”
Wasi Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh offered practical support as well: “If you need anything at all…if you just need somebody to come to the grocery store because you don’t feel safe in this city, we’ll be there and I’m sure everybody in the room would say the same thing. We’re here for the community.” As one people we applauded and mourned and embraced, we clapped and cried and huddled beneath shared umbrellas.
To love one’s neighbor as one’s own self is an underlying principle of Jewish faith, and we all strive to meet this condition as best we can. Until Sunday, however, I had never seen it fulfilled so earnestly on such a large scale. One can search for this level of community one’s whole life and never find it.
Now that I’ve found it, I’ll never forget it.
On Sunday, October 28, student leaders joined local politicians and University leadership to hold a vigil in memory of the Tree of Life attack victims.
Rabbi Yonason Shippel and five students of from the James Striar School—Dean Dadon, Mikhail Graytser, Aaron Shakibpanah, David Fedida and Lior Brick—left New York City at 3 a.m. to attend funeral services in Pittsburgh because “we’re one family.”
When Rabbi Shippel suggested to the Gemara shiur that they should go to Pittsburgh to pay a shiva call and show the people there that they are not alone, Brick felt that “it was clear that we had to go there to show confidence and compassion, show the families who lost their loved ones that even in New York, at Yeshiva University, with people from different parts of the world, we think about them and strengthen them. We wanted to show them that YU IS WITH YOU!”
Graytser felt the same impulse from inside himself when he heard Rabbi Shippel’s suggestion: “I went for one simple reason: to show the families that they are not alone, that Jews from all over the country and all over the world are there to support them in the time of this tragedy.”
The six of them found the visit transformative in so many ways. “We met Jews from different parts of the country,” said Brick, “but we also but met people of all religions, of all colors and all genders. Next to the improvised monuments that were erected there, we sang the song ‘Yachad’ (together, in English), which, to me , sums up my hope for a future of peace: ‘Together, heart to heart, we’ll open up and see the light in the sky. Together, heart to heart, we’ll open up with hope for love.’ It gives us hope!”
As Graytser articulated it, “At first, I thought our visit would be meaningful mostly to the families of the deceased, but it ended up being spiritually transformative to all of us.”
Rabbi Shippel and five students of Yeshiva University left NYC at 3am to attend funeral services in Pittsburgh today. “We’re one family.” pic.twitter.com/Mv7RDo64Rt
— Nate Smallwood (@nsmallwoodphoto) October 31, 2018
(l-r): Dean Dadon, Mikhail Graytser, Aaron Shakibpanah, Rabbi Shippel, David Fedida and Lior Brick
Gail (Giti) Bendheim ’91F
I was born and raised in Squirrel Hill, and my mom still lives there, in the house where I grew up. When I was young, except for occasional outings to the museum or for twice-yearly shopping trips, my three siblings and I defined our existence by the few surrounding blocks that could be navigated by foot or bicycle. Our school, Hillel Academy, was right around the corner, Schenley Park was just down the hill, our cousins lived downstairs and up the block and the Bookmobile parked faithfully on Darlington Road every Thursday night. Every Shabbat morning—rain or shine—we walked to shul with our father. We had the Pirates and the Steelers, a movie theater, and a kosher bakery. Our little world.
Pittsburgh—which has repeatedly reinvented itself— had yet to become the modern, hip, exciting city that it is today, and its Jewish community was fairly small. In fact, in my adolescent imagination, it was a bit of a backwater, especially when compared to a sophisticated big city like New York. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I always knew that I would be leaving Pittsburgh for broader pastures once college came around. Which I did, with relish and excitement. Like any good adolescent, I don’t think I gave much thought at the time to how Squirrel Hill had held me so snugly and so well. It is only now, so many years later, that I can truly understand the nature of that warm embrace.
Today, shocked and shaken in New York, I find myself hungrily devouring the news shows, craving a glimpse of a familiar street corner, straining to identify a storefront. I realize I want to claim my place in this proud and warm community, to let them know that no matter how far away I may be, I’m one of them, as I always have and ever will be. I know them, and I share their “out-of-town” identity, their humanitarian Jewish values, the midwestern solidarity they embody. I share their anguish, and I share their outrage.
In the wake of yesterday’s massacre, I have received countless emails, texts, and phone calls from people who associate me and my family with Squirrel Hill. Their loving messages strongly affirm for me my primal connection to my hometown. For them, I am their palpable “Pittsburgh,” and I accept that designation proudly.
I am so moved by the many, many people who have reached out over the miles and the years to express their horror, sympathy and commiseration. People who are sickened by what has happened, worried about my mom, about my family, about me—wonderful, caring people who affirm and restore my faith in a world that has felt broken and lost. Their words matter, and their sincerity matters. Taking the time to do something—to string together words of concern—matters in a radical way. I thank them for reminding me in the midst of evil that there is such a thing as goodness and for helping to sustain in me the hope that goodness will somehow carry the day.
Susan Jacobs Jablow ’99S
On Saturday morning around 10 a.m., as is typical, I was getting ready to leave the house with my kids to walk to our shul [synagogue] in Squirrel Hill. Even though services begin before 9 a.m., youth activities don’t start until 10 a.m., so my goal is to get to shul then, though we usually run later. On this particular occasion I was aggravated by our lateness because I knew we had to hurry to hear the Torah reading by the boy celebrating his bar mitzvah that day. It was also raining lightly, and I was fretting about whether my kids and I had chosen the right shoes and jackets for the 15-minute walk.
A few steps outside our house, it registered with me that I had been hearing sirens nearby. Since we live in a city neighborhood that is crisscrossed by a few major thoroughfares, and since we are relatively close to several hospitals, it’s not unusual to hear sirens. It is unusual, however, to hear multiple sirens, or sirens that go on for a long period of time. As we walked, my kids and I talked with concern about what was going on. To calm them and myself I pointed out that over the summer there had been a kitchen fire in a house on our street, and four fire trucks had come, more than seemed necessary. Maybe lots of sirens meant the response was overly cautious.
Shoshi (Mollie) Butler ’06S
Pittsburgh resident Mollie Butler and her children were on the streets of Pittsburgh Sunday holding signs thanking Pittsburgh police for their efforts in the wake of Saturday’s deadly synagogue shooting. Watch the video.
Right after Havdalah last Shabbat, the phone calls and text messages started pouring in. For the Orthodox community, and many rabbis across the country, the shock, awe and sadness began to spread out of Squirrel Hill, leaving many not knowing how to react to or comprehend what had happened or how to help both the community in Pittsburgh and their own communities, families and friends.
While the shootings raised questions about security, anti-Semitism and hate, they also provided an opportunity for unity among the Jewish community and with neighbors and friends. Rabbis across the globe were looked upon both by our community and the world for support, inspiration and a helping hand.
The Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) worked closely with community leaders and rabbis across the United States and the globe to provide resources for those on the frontlines both in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
CJF spearheaded several initiatives, including organizing a conference call on Tuesday, October 30, for over 200 Rabbis from across the world, led by Rabbi Yaakov Glasser (David Mitzner Dean of CJF), Rabbi Daniel Yalkut (the spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh), Rabbi J.J. Schacter (University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at CJF), Dr. David Pelkovitz (Gwendolyn & Joseph Straus Chair in Jewish Education) and Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner (Director of Community Initiatives at CJF).
The callers addressed the emotional, religious and spiritual dimensions of the tragedy in Pittsburgh as well as hearing from renowned scholars and mental health professionals about providing spiritual guidance and emotional support to their congregants.
Rabbi Glasser also led the benediction at the New Jersey State Assembly meeting on that same Tuesday. He focused on looking for the light in the tremendous tragedy, emphasizing unity against hate, understanding and acceptance, the importance of community and the tremendous role that our elected officials play in helping to safeguard our nation.
“Moments of tragedy and crisis have an unparalleled power of bringing the Jewish people together,” said Rabbi Glasser. “It is humbling and inspiring to watch the leadership and scholars of YU devote their time, expertise, and focus to supporting and inspiring our broader community. It is a testament to our values and priorities, that our students and staff react to tragedy by asking; ‘How can I serve?’”
Rabbi Sytner, who has a PhD from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, traveled with a group of undergraduate students to Pittsburg to be in solidarity with the people there. Together they attended a community vigil, prayed at the Tree of Life synagogue, offered consolation to the police officers on duty and provided emotional support at every opportunity they could to whomever passed by.
Rabbi Sytner also wrote some advice to parents in the Jewish Link of New Jersey titled “Returning to Shul: How to Speak to Our Children About Pittsburgh,” which offers seven suggestions about how to help children cope.
Dr. Pelkovitz will be traveling to Pittsburgh from Nov. 2 to Nov. 4 to offer his expertise about to manage the after-effects of traumatic stress, an area in which he has taught, written and counseled extensively.
CJF also partnered with the Rabbinical Council of American and the Orthodox Union on a conference call to discuss safety implication for our schools and sent
YU Torah: Perspectives on Tragedy has compiled links to speeches from Rabbis across the globe that offer words of inspiration and hope to the global Jewish community.
Dr. Nancy Beckerman, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Julie, my client, said this to me a few days after the rampage in Pittsburgh: “I didn’t know anyone. So I’m okay. I am really fine. It reminded me of how fragile life is. But I don’t need to talk about. I’m all right.” As she said she was “all right,” one tear coursed down to her chin.
Born into the human form, we all face emotional shocks and losses. Having a place of comfort and peace, such as a place of worship, shattered by hate-driven violence and death may likely lead those who survive—family members, community members, the greater Jewish communities and all of us— overwhelmed by helplessness, terror and a heightened vulnerability. As each concentric circle grapples to find comfort and meaning at this time, we are all coping with a full continuum of deeply held feelings.
Dr. Judith Herman, in her 1997 book Trauma and Recovery, provides a visceral definition of the condition: “… a moment of trauma [is] when one is taken by surprise, rendered helpless by an overwhelming force…and experiences a threat to life or bodily integrity in a close encounter with violence or death.’’ The trauma of the Pittsburgh shootings is in one way a single event, but for many in the Jewish community, it evokes a history of complex trauma that has been passed down through generations, to the point where families who have experienced intergenerational trauma have the sense of vulnerability, of being “singled out” and identified for their religious practice and identity, running literally through their neurological wiring.
The Tension Between Grief and Healing
All of us need to be as sad as our bodies tell us we are. When my client shed her tear, I asked, “Whose tear is that?” She responded, “I was afraid to talk about it. It’s my tear because I’ve been so upset.”
It may be painful to experience profound grief, but it is the most helpful thing we can do for ourselves and for the others around us. While grief and hope can co-exist and will overlap, we need to honor this moment and the human need to grieve as we re-build.
Julie went on to cry a great deal that day. She was glad she had a chance to talk some of this out, and even though she left still feeling sad, she was clearer about what this event evoked in her and how she would cope with her feelings over the next few days.
I’m relieved for her that her tear escaped.
Zahava Farbman, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and Dr. David Fox, Psychologist
Death, under any circumstance, is a painful and troubling event to face.
When our young people learn about the death of someone whom they knew, particularly if they have not encountered loss before, our task is somewhat clear. We open up a dialogue at an age-appropriate level, we listen to the child’s thoughts and observe their emotional expression, and we validate their personal reaction. Depending upon their age and maturity, and upon the questions which they pose to us, we can offer information, we might correct misunderstandings, we can clarify concepts, and we can offer support that we will continue to be open to them as they struggle to cope. Some of the same messages which we try to give ourselves when faced with tragic loss are given to young people, always at a pace and level which the child or teen can relate to.
Lisa Henshaw MSW, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Traumatic events, such as the one that occurred last weekend in Pittsburgh, evoke an ancient human response: for lack of better words, we come undone.
Even though we know our response to the event is normal and expected, it never feels normal, and it certainly does not feel like we should expect the grief or anger that overwhelms our capacity for coping or our compulsion to seek out details that can lead us down a paralyzing rabbit hole as we seek an understanding.
If this sounds like you are feeling or acting, you are not alone.
Reactions to trauma are complex, overwhelming and unpredictable. Yet, for all the discomfort they bring us, human beings cannot only survive their reactions, but thrive because of them.
Research indicates that opportunities for growth can be born out of loss, grief and tragedy and can include a newly developed appreciation for life, a spiritual purpose, more meaningful relationships, newly found personal strength and an openness to new possibilities. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl stated, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Frankl is saying that since we cannot change or control the tragedy that has occurred—we will never have adequate answers to “Why did this happen?” and “Why were these people harmed in a senseless act of violence?”—let us direct our attention toward changing your own narrative. How does that happen?
Here are several ways.
Naming: There is not enough that can be said about the power of naming our experiences. There is empowerment in releasing how you feel, in being heard and in stating your truth.
Be present: Grounding yourself in the moment and breathing through the feelings helps us to accept and let go. No matter how you feel about the present, acknowledging it without judgment helps us to move through it. Paying attention to your breath reminds us that we are living beings, with beating hearts. We matter.
Connect: As human beings, we have an innate drive to connect with others, which is essential for healthy coping, as necessary to our functioning as the air we breathe. We are each uniquely wired as individuals and your threshold and natural response to trauma will likely be different than the next person. However, this is expected and does not preclude any two persons from connecting to support one another.
Perhaps now would be a good time to reach out to someone.
Dr. Rona Milch Novick, Dean, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
Reading the outpouring of prayers and support alongside the deep sadness of the tragic violence visited upon the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life Synagogue. I am thinking of the thousands of Jewish children and teens who will be heading to Sunday school this morning, back to their Jewish day schools on Monday and with their families, attending tefillot next Shabbat in their local synagogue. How do we manage our own grief, anger and fear while offering comfort and wisdom to those children and teens, who like it or not, are watching us 24/7?
This is one of those times when, unable to promise safety, we may forget that there is much reassurance and support we can and should offer. We can tell our students about the real efforts underway to make our places of learning and praying safe. We can talk about all the wonderful, good, caring people in the world who are reaching out with words of comfort. We can share our faith and belief.
But more important than what we say will be the listening we do. All children and teens will find the events in Pittsburgh disturbing. Some will be particularly distressed. We need to offer opportunities for our children and our students to share their tears and their worries. We need to tailor programs and discussions to best meet the very different developmental needs of children from pre-school age through adolescence. Large group programs, such as memorial services or assemblies, can be powerful and comforting, but they offer no opportunity for adults who care for children and teens to observe whom amongst those assembled is most in need of support.
Last evening, after we doused our Havdalah candles and wished each other shavuah tov, I opened my email to find my colleagues at Azrieli Graduate School and Yeshiva University offering resources for schools and institutions that are struggling. We stand ready to serve in any way we can help. In times of sadness, loss and uncertainty, it is so important to have the comfort of established routines and to experience the opposite of powerlessness, to feel that we can actually make a difference in some way. As adults think about how we can help, we can also think about how engaging our children and students in acts of kindness and assistance may help them as well.
May our words and our efforts serve to comfort and strengthen. May our commitment to a world welcoming and safe for all people be a light on this dark day.
Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies
“Every one shall sit in safety under his vine and fig tree. . .”
Monday night I was preparing for my Tuesday morning class. I was trying to shake the pain, confusion and sadness that hit me after hearing the news of the massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, especially as it came on the heels of a week of pipe bombs mailed to public figures and the racially driven murder in cold blood of two African Americans in Kentucky.
I realized that before continuing with the assigned readings for Tuesday’s class, I wanted to create a space to engage with this personal, communal and national wound. I hoped to meditate on the murders together with my students, but constructively and in a mode I am most comfortable with, through texts, through lenses of the past obliquely illuminating the present.
This semester at Stern College for Women, I am exploring the complex and exciting history of the Jews of medieval Spain. It’s a course I never tire of teaching; there is so much to discover, struggle with, delight in.
I begin the class with a discussion of the place of the Jew in the medieval world: where and how does the Jew fit into a society that has become Christian or Muslim, religions that see the Children of Israel and their adherence to the Torah as a relic, as a stage that has been superseded by the advent of their New Covenant.
Whether under the “Crescent or the Cross,” the Jew lived at the indulgence of the lords of the land, tolerance in different forms but not equality. Whether as Dhimi, protected second class citizens under Islam, or as Servi Camerae Regis, servants of the King in Christian lands, the Jew’s place in society was contingent and never a given.
I wanted to go back to the moment where this model of tolerance was roundly rejected and proudly replaced by a society that was based on the equality of its citizens, not the indulgences given by the mighty and capricious.
This shift occurs shortly after the American War of Independence during a visit by President George Washington to Newport and is recorded in an illuminating exchange of letters between the leader of the small Jewish congregation of Newport—the Sephardic Kehila Kedosha Yeshuat Yisrael—to the first President of the American Republic. Together, we read Moses Seixas’ letter to Washington and Washington’s response. We read these letters in light of the experience of Jews in the Old World and noticed how these two documents represented a profound break with that past.
Seixas opens by both proudly asserting his Jewishness and his place along the other citizens of Newport. He refers to himself and his community as the “Children of the Stock of Abraham,” but at the same time, he welcomes the President alongside his “fellow citizens.” America can have a citizen who maintains his particular attachments, who holds on to his difference at the same time that he joins in the collective body politic.
Seixas next invokes powerful images of biblical kings, warriors and visionaries to describe the leadership of Washington during the war. My students noted how this passage echoes the “Prayer for the Welfare of the Government” said on Shabbat morning but also points to a shared biblical touchstone that Washington and the other Christians (predominantly Bible-reading Protestants) would have recognized. Again, the particular and the universal are at play.
Next Seixas makes explicit the break with the old world:
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.
Seixas and his community knew full well the consequences of the capricious and limited tolerance of the Old World. He was the descendant of those same Sephardim who lived and thrived on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, loyally serving caliphs and kings, creating a luminous culture along with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, suffering indignities and enjoying success, wealth and creative heights. Those same Sephardim who were forced into exile or forcibly converted and hounded by the Inquisition; those same Sephardim who made their way to the freedom of Amsterdam in the 1600s where they could reclaim their Judaism in the relative tolerance of that bustling cosmopolitan center of commerce.
Even in Amsterdam, however, their acceptance was contingent on their economic utility. They enjoyed unprecedented economic, social and religious rights, but they were not equals. Seixas appreciated that America was fundamentally different. Here, “every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language [are] equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
Washington also acknowledges the break with the past: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people.” No more will minorities be “tolerated” by the “indulgence” of the powerful. Washington makes clear that
the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.
Protection of each individual’s natural rights are ensured by the state for all who act as good citizens. No more the capricious protection promised by the powerful; instead all citizens are part of the noble experiment of democracy.
This is a radical vision. The United States has space for all its citizens, even as those citizens maintain their distinct identities. If the Jew¬—the quintessential Other of Christian Europe—can be a citizen, then this opens the way for other groups to find their way into the body politic.
The attack on Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh is not just like any attack on Jews throughout the blood-stained paths of Jewish history. It is an attack on the American idea of what it means to be a free person in society, being true to your values and your many identities at the same time as being an “equal part of the great governmental Machine.”
The attack on the Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue is part of a wider phenomenon of xenophobia with a long and deep past even in this miraculous republic. As Washington was greeting the fine citizens of Newport, there were millions of African American slaves who were not yet part of this great society. America is a society of immigrants that has historically sought to close the doors to the next wave of “others” seeking refuge and opportunity. From the outset the American experiment was flawed, and it’s been marred by moral failures and blindness and missteps. But at its core, in its foundational self-conception, lies a vision of a more perfect union, of a society where democracy ensures the individual’s natural rights and where the dignity of all is cherished. These ideals can be forgotten and diseased, which is why they must be studied, engaged with and fought for.
I will leave the last words to Washington:
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Read the full texts of these letters and find out more information on the Jews of Newport.
I want to thank my bright, curious and passionate students at Stern College whose insightful questions and comments helped inspire this essay.
Bonnie Pollak, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
As a 64-year-old woman who decided it is never too late to go back to school, I am at the tail-end of a long, arduous but exciting journey to obtain a PhD in social welfare at Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
Exploring many topics for my dissertation, I decided to go with a subject dear to my heart: the Holocaust. I am a child of a concentration camp survivor—my mother was in Auschwitz—and this painful history is what defines me. I am examining the theological impact of the transmission of intergenerational trauma to children of concentration camp survivors.
How would I find children of survivors who would be willing to talk to me about growing up in a home with one or two parents who endured the worst that man can conjure up? I posted a request for interviewees on a Facebook group, “Children of Concentration Camp survivors.” I started to receive many responses, such as “I would be happy to be part of your study.” I traveled to Long Island, Brooklyn, upstate New York, and New Jersey to hear their stories. The overwhelming response was happiness and relief that someone was still interested in their story: “You must keep the Holocaust alive.”
Last Saturday, 11 Jews attending services in a Pittsburgh synagogue were gunned down by a crazed anti-Semite, a man who intended to kill as many Jews as possible. By Sunday morning, I started receiving multiple notes from the Facebook group, saying they wanted to participate in my study. Many people said they are grateful their parents are not alive to see what is happening in America. Others said they are scared because they are seeing signs the Holocaust could happen in the United States. The stories they had heard from parents who had survived Hitler’s death camps were now being played out in real time, and questions being posted on Facebook included “What should we do?” “Where should we go?” and “Never again.”
Some interviewees showed me family photos taken in the 1930s. I saw elaborately drawn family trees, and I recorded memories of parents who were scared by a knock at the door, the barking of a dog and a policeman in uniform. For many of these children of survivors, prayer and being part of a larger community has given them hope and helped ease their pain.
Nearly 75 years have passed since World War II ended, but for many children of Holocaust survivors, the story continues. The Holocaust has not ended for the man who leaves the synagogue before the end of Sabbath prayers because he cannot bear the sound of Jews shuffling out, or the anxious woman who stated, “The world is a terrible place, but I have to believe in God: what else is there?”
The shooting in Pittsburgh confirms what many children of survivors believe: “It is happening again.” The anxiety, fear, nightmares, sleeplessness, worries about the safety of children and grandchildren, have now been reawakened. The Holocaust is alive, and Hitler is among us.
• YU Torah: Perspectives on Tragedy
• Thanking Law Enforcement (The Yeshiva World)
• “Returning to Shul: How to Speak to Our Children About Pittsburgh” (Jewish Link of New Jersey, by Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner)
• Pittsburgh Jews begin healing with ancient shiva mourning custom (Reuters, quoting Rabbi Yaakov Glasser)
• “We Are All in Pain” (Manhattan Times News)
• “New York Rallies Unity, Support For Synagogue Shattered By Hateful Killings” (CBS: reference to the vigil at Yeshiva University begins at 1:58)
• Yeshiva University Visits Pittsburgh (viral footage)