Why we save things after a tragedy
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OpinionGuest Columnist

Why we save things after a tragedy

Congregations targeted in Oct. 27 massacre are represented in Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives

“And when you have become old, I will be unchanged” [Isaiah 46:4].

Those words from the prophet Isaiah always remind me of the archives. As we become older day by day, the things in the archive go unchanged. They may yellow and fade, but they never depart from the instant of their creation. Any change we perceive in them is actually a change in ourselves, a change in our understanding of the world we inhabit.

Never has this felt truer. The Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives was established on Nov. 1, 1988, which means it turned 30 just days after the attack at the Tree of Life building. The tragedy changed the tone of the anniversary. What might have been a moment for reminiscing instead became a somber opportunity to reflect on the purpose of a community archive.

Among our hundreds of collections, we hold the records of New Light and Dor Hadash congregations, and while the early records of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha were donated to the University of Pittsburgh in 1975, the congregation is well represented in our archive, especially its Sisterhood — the oldest in our region. We have the records of the many Jewish organizations that rushed to help within minutes of the attack. In the aftermath of what happened that terrible morning, a powerful new energy radiates from these records, even though they are no different than they were the day prior the attack. What has changed is our understanding of our Jewish community. These records now represent our “before.” They vividly illustrate the preciousness of what was threatened and harmed.

Having a “before” promises an “after.” Inside the boxes of records in the archives, no single event defines our community. Each event exists within a web of events, connected to other events large and small, each one documenting some aspect of our Jewish lives.

So much of that Jewish life is portable. The commandments, traditions, customs, beliefs and memories can all survive in the mind. They can be uprooted and replanted anywhere.

Only a few pieces of the Jewish experience are fixed. Synagogues and cemeteries are the most obvious. They take up space. They are built by people who expect to stay put. Not everyone does.

Zipporah Mordecai was likely the first Jewish woman to settle in this region. She came with her husband, Mordecai Moses Mordecai, in 1775, making a home near where the Cathedral of Learning is today. Their son Samuel was the first Jewish child born in this region. The Mordecais returned to the east after a few years, weary and broke from the brutalities of the frontier. Not until 1847 was a Jewish cemetery established in our half of the state.

In the 72 years between those milestones, this region hosted many Jewish residents but none who felt secure enough to make any lasting communal investment here — no cemeteries, no synagogues, no charities. They could not give any thought to creating a Jewish future. They were too busy surviving the present.

Soon after that first cemetery came synagogues, charities and community centers. But it took another 141 years to establish a Jewish archive. An archive requires deeper roots than those other institutions. You not only need hope for the future but also belief in the past. You cannot begin to preserve your history until you realize you have a story to tell.

We know we have a story to tell. I have spent the past year collecting the many things our community has chosen to preserve as a testament to this moment in our history. Each individual item is so personal and small. But to step back and view all of it, the thousands upon thousands of things born from that morning, is to witness a collective act of hope.

We save things so that we might speak to people who will be born long after we have died. We cannot know who they will be, or how our story will sound to them. By speaking, we express our belief that someone will be there to hear what we are saying. pjc

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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