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Solidarity Shabbat After Pittsburgh Shootings, Part II

11/05/2018 09:15:00 AM

Nov5

Jenny Medina, Proud BDJ Member & New York Times Writer

The tragedy was still sinking in when I did what I often do after mass shootings: I got to work. I figured that between my husband’s family in Pittsburgh and the small Jewish world, I may be able to offer some connections that would help the reporting.

I did not have a direct line to any of the 11 victims, each of them old enough to be my parent or grandparent. But as I started to talk with their friends and families Sunday morning, I felt like I knew them.

Calling family members to get them to talk mere hours after a loved one is killed is not something any journalist I know likes to do. Unfortunately, I have done it hundreds of times in my career. I try my very best to be absolutely respectful and kind. I tell them with honesty and sincerity: We want to try to show a glimpse into the life your father, your brother, your friend, lived. Maybe, just maybe, I tell myself, this will give honor to their memory, may it be for a blessing.

I certainly did not have much time to reflect Sunday. I emailed my bosses back in New York some details about Jewish ritual, suggesting that there might be an interesting story to tell about how the many traditions of death and burial would be complicated by the awful way these victims had been murdered. (You can find Jenny's column here.)

After the kids had gone to bed, around 11 p.m. Pittsburgh time, I spoke with Rabbi Wasserman, who leads the Orthodox chevre kadisha there. He sounded both stunned and matter of fact: “This is what we do, we mobilize,” he told me. “Anybody who is familiar with what we do knows this will be complicated.”

To say the least. Has there ever been another time in America where a team of around-the-clock tehilim-davening women and men had to be dispatched to the morgue to serve as shomers for 11 bodies all at once?

As I spoke at length to him and Malke Frank, a woman who helped start the New Community chevra kadisha, it was impossible not to be struck by magnitude of their jobs and the holiness of their work. As they do for anyone they care for, the groups would perform tehara, carefully washing and preparing their bodies for burial. Malke spent more than an hour walking me through the carefuland  meticulous process they would go through. Just as they always do, the group would ask for mechila, addressing the dead by their Hebrew or Yiddish name, to ask forgiveness for any mistakes they might make during the process.

It may not surprise any of you to learn about the incredibly holy work the chevre kadisha does, did and will do. There was no way, Ms. Frank told me, that any of the work they have done before could prepare them for what they would see with these bodies, shot by an AR15. They each had to undergo an autopsy, which is routine in any mass shooting, to help prosecutors craft their case against the assailant.

I absorbed all this and far more Monday just as I always do, sifting through information that I thought was interesting, trying to figure out what would appeal to my editors and connect with our readers.

Here is an excerpt from that story:

“The face of the deceased is constantly covered — if the dead cannot see the eyes of the living, tradition goes, the living cannot see the eyes of the dead.

When the washing is done, they end with a phrase from the Song of Songs, a poem from the Jewish bible: “You are beautiful my beloved friend and there is no flaw in you.””

The response to this story was incredible. I received notes from colleagues, some Jewish, many not, remarking about how important it is to give readers a sense of these traditions. I received many texts from friends, including some of you, that meant the world to me. But it was comments from readers that surprised me the most. Nearly every person who wrote commented on the beauty, on the sacredness of this act. How our traditions’ reverence for death shows reverence for life.

A reader from Texas wrote:

If there is anything good to come from this tragedy, it is this model of quiet, humble, loving service to the victims of hate.

And from New York:

The ancient rituals surrounding death in the Jewish tradition so clearly show that honor and respect are accorded each individual human being, living and dead. It is a religious approach, yes, but it is also deeply humanistic.

On Wednesday, I awoke to notes from editors asking me to help us get access to shiva. I had spoken to enough people already to know that would be nearly impossible for me to do. One thought kept striking me: these families are facing an impossible challenge -- trying to have a normal shiva for a death that is anything but normal.

But another thing struck me too. It is more than just the victims, even more than just Jewish Pittsburgh, that needed help. It is concentric circles of grief. It starts with the family, it goes to Squirrel Hill, maybe from there to the wider Jewish community. But eventually, it touches anyone who abhors hate in the world. And, I still believe, I want to believe, that is almost everyone.

Here, I want to read from an email I received Tuesday from my dear friend Joelle Keene.

She remarked that the obituaries had “shone the warmest possible light on what a synagogue can be.” It made her look at her own synagogue (that’s us) “even more fondly, if that’s possible.” (Any of you who know Joelle knows that would be hard to do.) But I agree. Learning of the lives inside that shul gave me renewed profound respect for the smaller scenes that happen here every week, every day.

I hope that what I did this week was some version of zichron l’vracha. Making their memories for a blessing. I think to what one cousin of the Rosenthal brothers told me:

"If people who wouldn't normally come to shiva show up because of the enormity of this loss, learn about their lives and are inspired them to do good, then these deaths, in a perverse way, mean more."

I’m going to close by quoting from an essay written by another woman I know, Alana Newhouse, in Tablet earlier this week.

“The lesson here is clear,” she wrote. “The Internet has given us the illusion of connection. Politics has given us the illusion of control. Only community gives us the reality of both.”

I am deeply grateful for having this incredible community. May we all continue to love deeply and to deepen our ties and kindness here and well, well beyond. 

Thu, January 17 2019 11 Shevat 5779