When I was invited to reflect on the past year, I had to relive those terrible days. Even after 12 months, how do you comprehend something so incomprehensible? How do you comfort those who cannot feel consoled? How do you embrace the present and future in the face of an unbearable past?
As someone who has lived in Squirrel Hill for over 40 years and who personally knew some of the kadoshim, the questions kept coming. There were no simple answers back then, and no easy answers today. However, certain ideas and actions have resonated with such force that their effect, and their truth, cannot be denied. Permit me to share some of these ideas.
What happened in Pittsburgh was felt throughout the world. Jews and non-Jews. Men, women and children. Religious and non-religious alike. We were deeply hurt, and emotionally crushed by violent hatred against innocent, well-meaning people whose only “crime” was attending services on Shabbat.
Almost all who were touched were not paralyzed by grief, as much as they were motivated by it. They came by the thousands day and night. In some cases, they drove hundreds of miles just to spend a few minutes in prayer outside the building or to leave flowers at the makeshift memorial, a memorial that grew and grew until it covered the area in front of the synagogue.
They performed myriads of good deeds and acts of kindness. It was a tsunami of compassion that stretched around the world and reached the heights of heaven. Jewish men donned tefillin in their merit and memory. Communities learned mishnayos, sections of Oral Law, in the memory and merit of these fallen heroes. Charitable funds were established to carry on the noble deeds of the departed.
I am proud to say that movement that united people 12 months ago has not abated. It has not weakened. Locally, nationally and globally, it has become a force for good. Evil has met its match.
This is not the first time that innocent Jews have been struck down as they prepared to raise their voices to their Creator. Sadly, a similar event occurred in 1956, not in Pittsburgh but in the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad. A band of Arab fedayeen attacked the local vocational school, killing five children and one teacher and wounding 10 more children while they were engrossed in prayer. Israelis of all stripes were shocked. Many of them had lost relatives at the hands of the Nazis. Their memories were still raw and now this. Anxiously, these Jews turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson for comfort. The Rebbe did not let them down.
In a telegram, the Rebbe wrote, “Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu — By your continued building will you be comforted.” So it was. Despair was displaced by determination. The community began to rebuild spiritually by rebuilding physically.
So it is today. The funerals, the bitter weeks of mourning, the tears have mostly dried. In their place, one can feel a sense of resolve. “By building will you be comforted.” Building new relationships between people, between organizations, between communities. These walls are stronger than those that can be pierced by bullets. It is my personal hope and expectation that they will last longer, as well.
Yet another point must be made; one that seems so counterintuitive that, if it wasn’t made by the Rebbe, it could be easy to reject. Speaking at an assembly of Chassidim gathered to mark the day of passing of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the Rebbe remarked, “Every year, a yahrtzeit brings renewed vitality.”
Renewed vitality to those who passed away? Yes, according to Jewish tradition, the souls of the departed ascend to higher and higher levels of spirituality when their lives on this world are remembered and commemorated appropriately. How much more is this true of those who passed away al kiddush Hashem! So we come to the ultimate reconciliation — those who are no longer in this world are being bolstered by all the good deeds they performed in their lifetimes, by all the kind acts and positive resolutions performed by tens of thousands of Jewish people around the world, by the organizations and efforts that have come as a result of the unspeakable tragedy that befell them, and finally by the Comfort that only the Creator can provide.
Twelve months have passed and the world continues, but it is no longer the same. As long as we continue to carry the positive messages of their lives in our thoughts, words and deeds, we will ensure their lives were not lost in vain. At the same time, we will hasten the coming of Moshiach when we will all be reunited with our loved ones. May it be speedily in our days. pjc
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld is the dean of Yeshiva Schools and Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh.