We will not be broken.
This is the first public statement that my husband, Rabbi Jon Perlman of New Light Congregation, made on Oct. 28, 2018, after the shooting at his synagogue. At the time I thought it was optimistic and determined, and was I proud that he had the strength to say and to believe it. But I wondered: Would it really be the case?
The three New Light members who were killed as martyrs were all former shul presidents and regular daveners and haftarah readers. No one could take the places of Rich Gottfried, Dan Stein and Mel Wax, but would there be others to fill their roles? And beyond the practicalities of organizing a Shabbat morning prayer service, how would our members cope with the thought that going to shul could be a lethal pursuit, something none of us would have expected in our lifetimes in America? At least I certainly did not. I believed that antisemitism was relegated to stories of parents and grandparents who were barred from certain jobs or neighborhoods because of their religion, or who were mocked in school for being a Jew as my father was. I never thought antisemitism would threaten the lives of my family members or people I knew.
So 4 ½ years later, when I walked into our new chapel at Congregation Beth Shalom, with the memorial boards moved from our previous place of worship and a new memorial plaque for the martyrs added, I was more than pleased to see that there were almost 30 people present, many who were guests who had come to join with us, and that we were being led in prayer by a young man, the grandson of New Light members who is a talented musician and became quite involved with the Jewish community at his university. Not only was this young man there to lead prayers, he would be leaving later that week to spend the summer learning at Hadar, further advancing his own knowledge of Jewish texts. We don’t usually have many young people at New Light so this felt especially sweet. Usually our morning service is led by a man who joined the congregation and became active after the shooting and who feels a mandate to be involved at New Light precisely because there were others who cannot. One of the survivors of the shooting, along with my husband, usually leads other parts of the service. For the haftarah, instead of relying on the three people who were killed, with others filling in here and there, we have a rotating cadre of readers. I have taught four students how to read haftarah. Some people who have joined us learned this skill for the first time and others have begun chanting for the first time since their bar or bat mitzvah. To be in a room, davening, with such a strong group of people, made me realize that my husband’s proclamation is true: We have not been broken.
And after shul, on that June 17 Shabbat, Judi Rosen, the niece of Mel Wax, brought the makings of a beautiful kiddush and set it up with white tablecloths and rolls so we could have a meal together. After the guilty verdict in the trial the previous day, it felt satisfying to be able to sit and socialize, enjoy Shabbat together, catch up, discuss how the experience hearing the verdict felt — a vindication and a chance to know that the lives lost had been acknowledged.
But what do you serve at an event marking a verdict that took over 4 1/2 years to reach? Judi Rosen knew exactly what should be on the menu to show that a modern-day Haman had been defeated.
Hamantashen were served at New Light that morning! Hamantashen made sense of course, to celebrate the verdict finding the killer of her uncle and 10 others in synagogue guilty, and showing that Haman, and Amalek, and any other name that this entity has had throughout Jewish history, did not succeed.
That was really the tastiest morsel on offer that day — the knowledge that Jon’s statement on Oct. 28, 2018, was not a just a statement but a prophecy that New Light members, along with those who assisted us over the years, fulfilled.
In a recent graduation speech reprinted in the Forward, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl spoke about UC Berkeley researcher Dacher Keltner and his work on the science of awe. The number one source of awe? In Buchdahl’s words, “a transcendent goodness he called ‘moral beauty’ — the exceptional acts of courage, sacrifice, resilience and kindness seen not only in moments of crisis, but also in the more everyday struggles of being human.”
I am so proud that New Light members and those who have come to assist us in having a minyan, leading the service, chanting the Torah and haftarah and bringing and setting up kiddush the past 4 ½ years have illuminated this quality and made sure that we will not be broken. I am in awe of the strength and fortitude of all who ensure that the Jewish people will not be broken, as I hope those who read about the courage and bravery of those supporters and their deeds will come to feel as well. PJC
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy.”