Family & Education

Why we need to share our grief over Pittsburgh

An attack on a Jewish community anywhere feels like an attack on our own, says Susan Reuben


In the days following the horrific attack in Pittsburgh, I’ve observed within Jewish communities around the world an overwhelming urge to take action.

Exactly what kind of action that is has varied greatly — but the common denominator seems to be the need to do something. There have been vigils in synagogues and community centres, diatribes against gun laws, collections for refugee charities, expressions of disgust at the words of President Trump and Jenny Tonge. On social media, people have added slogans against antisemitism to their profile pictures and written post after post expressing their shock and anger and sadness.

I am left wondering whether any of this frantic activity will help. Can it really give comfort to the grieving families at the heart of this atrocity or prevent something similar from happening again? I hope it can, but it’s so hard to know. It does seem that, provided our anger is channelled towards the positive and redemptive, not the destructive, then at the very least it cannot harm.

I believe that this desire to act — to write, pray, give, campaign — is on some level a response to our sense of helplessness. The murders seem random and therefore all the more terrifying; they could have happened in any synagogue. We therefore feel the need to try to carve some order out of a chaotic and frightening situation, to regain a feeling of control. And we need to connect with each other: to come together physically or with words; to be reassured by each other’s presence.

One of the things people have been most keen to do is to share and share again the names, the ages, the stories of the victims. Reading about them, I’m struck by how desperately familiar they sound. These are people one feels one would meet at any shul anywhere: they were greeters and service leaders, an ex president, a couple who were married in that very same synagogue six decades previously. They evidently formed the backbone of the community. One, for example, was 69-year-old Irving Younger, of whom a fellow synagogue member said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw this gunman walk into the room where the services were and his first thought was, ‘Can I help this stranger get settled?’”

In the days leading up to the shooting, I was on a press trip on a cruise ship. I had joined the last three days of a two-week tour, and by the time I got there the passengers were deeply into the rhythm of their holiday. Routines had long since been established and friendships formed. So when, on the Friday night, my husband and I entered the room that had been set up in preparation for a Shabbat service, the group of Jewish guests there greeted us with warmth and amazement. Who were we? Why hadn’t they met us yet? How come we were only on board for three days? Was that even allowed? A press trip? For which paper? And so on.

Then the service began, carried out jointly by all present. At first, it was a halting affair. People were not quite sure which bits to read or which tune anyone else was going to know. And yet, it all came together, the Shema, the Amidah, the Kaddish flowing off the tongues of this geographically disparate group and giving it instant unity. For the rest of the time on the ship, whenever someone who had been at the service spotted us, they hailed us like old friends.

It was really very simple — we felt connected because we were all Jewish; and so it is with the community in Pittsburgh. An attack on a Jewish community anywhere feels like an attack on our own.

But obviously, the sense of shock and outrage extends far beyond the Jewish world. In particular, there have been lots of reports of Muslim groups offering help. The Pittsburgh Muslim community, for example, have offered both physical protection and have raised substantial funds for the victims’ families. Closer to home, Rabbi Miriam Berger of Finchley Reform Synagogue says that the very first message she received after the news of the shooting broke was from a member of the local Somali Bravanese community. They had been strongly supported by the synagogue following an arson attack on their community centre, and wished to reciprocate now that the Jewish community was under threat.

Although we gain consolation by connecting more strongly with each other in times of trouble like these, are there any words or actions that might alleviate the suffering of the bereaved families themselves? I imagine them surrounded by concentric circles of people: nearest to the centre are those who know them and can directly support them; then, rippling outwards, there are the many thousands of strangers, Jewish and non-Jewish, moved to horror and sympathy by what has happened to them. Maybe it’s possible for the afflicted families to feel the sheer weight of this love and concern; and knowing that it’s out there, whether or not it’s communicated directly to them, to feel a little comforted.


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