We cannot go back to who we were. We are more ourselves than ever. That is the paradox of the past year for Congregation Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation deeply rooted in tradition while exploring new ways of being Jewish. Our congregants are Jews by birth or by choice; single or families; we include people of different races, places of birth, sexual orientations and gender identities; and we live in households that are of the same or different faiths. We have been privileged to count among our members such moral and humane examples as Jerry Rabinowitz (z”l), Dan Leger and our longtime cantor, Cheryl Klein. They and many others have shared their unique Jewish selves and have set examples of lives worth living.
Founded in 1963, we are a lay-led congregation that mostly met in people’s homes. As we grew and became aware of the need for accessibility, our school and congregation became increasingly centered in the buildings where we rented space. We kept our costs down, raising our children in a spirited, stimulating and caring community.
When the shooting happened we were in a state of shock. We first protected the privacy of our injured and survivors. The day after the shooting we gathered at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Never could we have anticipated the number of past and present members who came to support one another. We clung together in both disbelief and pain. The anti-Semitism that had been brewing and bubbling up had killed one member and severely injured another. We could no longer think of mass shootings as events that happened to other people. We could no longer stand up for our moral value of welcoming the stranger without the fear that we were putting ourselves in harm’s way.
Thankfully we were not alone. First responders rushed into a building, sacrificing their own well- being to save our lives. The JCC opened its doors and provided a caring place for families waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones. We have received help from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh’s leadership, and new and old friends in Squirrel Hill. Pittsburgh’s Muslim and Christian communities reached out and touched us deeply. We have been embraced by the Reconstructionist movement, and by communities who experienced mass shootings — Parkland and the AME Church in Charleston.
Within days, we found the resolve to stand up to the hatred and violence that confronted us. We refused to put our heads in the sand. We spoke out against white supremacy, racism and anti-immigration. We developed a strong organization that works to end gun violence. We pleaded against the death penalty.
We worried about our children, some of whom could not sleep, others perplexed that we weren’t going back to a familiar place anytime soon. Our college students and young adults who were on their own for the first time did not have the community to lean on. Everyone around them went about their business, the world was normal for everyone else, but not for them. Their isolation was palpable.
In the meantime, we knew our cantor was stepping down and our school principal was retiring. What would have been enormous but anticipated internal changes were folded into new problems — increased security needs, adjusting to a new home and figuring out how to respond to the trauma we had suffered.
Our High Holiday services were remarkable. Our service leaders inspired us, talks by our lay members were profound; singing and praying together in a new space, in new circumstances, only strengthened our desire to be together. We miss our old ways, our old places, but we embrace all that has been given to us and we recognize ourselves as a thriving community.
Our voice is the most powerful part of our healing. It is our hope of sparking some good in this very fractured world. We cannot go back to what we were, a small community outside the Jewish mainstream. Our voice, in response to the circumstances we were thrust into, has become a model for progressive Jewish values.
We notice our edginess, that small slights get under our skin. That we are not at peace. We miss Jerry and cannot bring him back. No one can convince us that the world will ever feel as safe, as kind or as stable. In spite of the outpouring of love, the hate is not shrinking, and we cannot let the haters destroy our beautiful world. We cannot turn a blind eye to the greed and the indifference to human life, to the destruction of our planet. This was not a random act but part of a systemic failure that has been in the works for a long time.
The mass shootings, acts of anti-Semitism and the hatred and fear of immigrants and people of color have only increased in the past year. We resist the inflammatory language of white supremacists embraced by our political leaders and we continue to fight for a just, compassionate and safe world. It’s hard to remember the before, when we did not feel the threat to our existence as imminent. Sometimes we want to run and hide, but we continue to help one another build our strength and resolve for the long haul. Our work is intrinsic to our identity, but we do not want to be defined by what has happened to us.
We at Dor Hadash are extremely fortunate to have a community, something sorely lacking as people become more isolated from one another. We remember to sing together, to talk together, to understand how Jewish we really are — that the values that have helped us maintain our compassion and strength are rooted in our Jewishness, something many of us have never fully owned until now. pjc
Donna Coufal is the president of Dor Hadash Congregation.