Every week on Shabbat, the seventh day, when Jews come to the synagogue to observe the Sabbath, the Torah scroll is removed from the ark, lifted up, then laid gently down on a broad lectern and rolled out so the Scripture portion of the day may be chanted directly from the Hebrew text. Before and after each segment of the Torah portion is chanted, a person is called up from the pews to stand beside the Torah and recite a blessing. This is called an “aliyah” (Hebrew for “going up”).
Traditionally women were not called up to the Torah. But by the late 1970s, some synagogues were doing so, and as an older teenager I had the honor of being called up for an aliyah for the first time. Joy filled my heart. It’s a moment I will never forget.
And yet, it’s a moment I had not thought of in a very long time — not, that is, until Oct. 27. The memory returned because I had my first aliyah at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where our family worshipped since moving from New Jersey in 1972. We lived in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where I attended high school, met friends at the Jewish Community Center, bought kosher meat and bagels and babka on Murray Avenue and took long bike rides and walks under the trees and among the hills.
It was at Tree of Life that at age 15 I was confirmed in the Jewish faith. My sister, a voice major at Carnegie-Mellon University, served as the cantor for a nearby Reconstructionist congregation called Dor Hadash, and I often attended there as well.
Last week, when we heard about the shooting at Tree of Life, we also learned that Dor Hadash now meets in the Tree of Life building and was also caught up in the attack. I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that what is considered to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history occurred at Tree of Life.
I always loved that name for a congregation. It comes from Proverbs 3:13,18:
Happy are those who find Wisdom,
and those who get understanding…
She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
And all who hold fast to her are happy.
One of the most beautiful things to emerge from the dust of this tragedy — and many such tragedies — is the constant evidence of how our faithful God has conquered the grave. When a hateful heart aims to kill, love moves others to rush into the fire to save life. When a sick mind tries to annihilate, others intensify their efforts to heal and renew.
Immediately after the Tree of Life massacre, when it became apparent that the shooter despised not only Jews but immigrants, the message ringing out from the Jewish community and its supporters has been to reaffirm their commitment to welcoming immigrants:
When foreigners reside with you in your land,
you shall not oppress them.
They shall be to you as citizens among you.
You shall love the foreigner as yourself,
for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.
I am the Lord your God. —Leviticus 19:33-34
As it happens, Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that share the Tree of Life building, had recently participated in National Refugee Shabbat organized by HIAS (formerly known as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), so it was likely targeted in part for this reason. HIAS, first established in 1881 to resettle Jewish refugees persecuted in the Russian pogroms, continues to exist because welcoming the stranger and protecting the refugee is, in the words of Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, “quintessentially Jewish.” She says: “In the beginning we helped refugees because they were Jews. Now we help refugees because we are Jews.”
All my ancestors fled to the United States and Canada from the oppression of Jews in Eastern Europe. My father was an immigrant when he came here from Toronto to study, met and married my mother and eventually became a U.S. citizen. As the daughter of Jews and immigrants, I don’t have answers to why these things happen.
But I do have confidence in the steadfast love of God, and I affirm in hope and faith and trust: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last you will stand upon the dust” (Job 19:25).
Sabrina Falls is on the pastoral team at Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis.
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