Pittsburgh tells us to take a stand for all humanity

I wore the T-shirt to shul last Friday night. The message is so good, I thought; everyone should see it: “Take a Stand for Humanity,” it says. It’s the motto of the Illinois State Holocaust Museum, a reminder of my recent visit.
On Saturday morning, I traded it for my pink “survivor shirt” and went off early to take part in my 34th Komen Walk for the Cure. I’ve been “cured” twice, and it’s a pleasure to sit in the Survivor Tent, sip coffee and tell young, newly diagnosed women that, yes indeed, there is lots of good life after breast cancer.
Then I went home to learn that life had gone out for 11 people in Pittsburgh, folks in my hometown who had been worshipping while I was walking, who had been wearing tallitot while I was in pink, who paid the ultimate price — not because of cancer, but simply because of being Jewish.
I love the city of my birth, my education, my career start — which was at the Pittsburgh Jewish weekly of that time. I love its many bridges over its three rivers and the breathtaking view of “The Point,” where those rivers come together, often called “Pittsburgh’s Front Door.” I can still sing in my mind the old songs of the great steel city Pittsburgh once was, and about Joe Magarac, its imaginary but iconic steel worker.
I have lived in Dallas for almost 40 years and it is very much my home. But Pittsburgh will always be my heart’s home. And my heart broke with the news that Tree of Life, one of many synagogues within walking distance in a very close, very Jewish neighborhood, had been chosen by a demented anti-Semite as the place to release his pent-up rage with vile shouts and fatal gunshots.
Many people know I’m a Pittsburgher, so I at first received many phone calls and emails asking if my family (so much of it is still there) was OK. And then came more, saying how thankful they were that none of my family had been among the 11. I appreciated that because it was said with genuine good feeling. But in my heart, I was not thankful, because every one of those dead was a part of my Pittsburgh family. Theirs were old family names I have known all my life. If I didn’t know any of those particular people personally, I have known some of their families. There is no difference in my mourning.
I’ve learned that a high school classmate of a former Pittsburgher I know here in Dallas was among the Tree of Life dead. I have learned that Holocaust survivor Judah Samet was a few minutes late arriving at the synagogue and was in the parking lot when the shots were fired. He had evaded death years ago in Bergen-Belsen and might have confronted it head-on again had he been on time. I suspect from the family name of one who did not survive that she was a distant cousin of my Boubby the Philosopher. My Pittsburgh cousin who keeps adding leaves to our greatly extended family tree can let me know.
I’ve also learned that security was non-existent at Tree of Life, with police presence only for the High Holidays. And I suspect this has been true for all those other nearby synagogues and for the Jewish day schools as well. My own son works at the largest of these; his succinct comment was “I guess this will be our new normal.” I suspect the attitude in Pittsburgh — if there was ever any thought given to such horrors as this — was “It will never happen here.” But it did. I bless our own Federation for making all of us look squarely at what might never happen here, but prepare for it anyway.
I wore that same T-shirt again to the community memorial gathering Sunday evening. It is surely time for all of us to Take a Stand for Humanity.

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