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The Synagogue Archipelego 

12/18/2018 12:50:59 PM


Chaim Strauchler

There are things that I do, because I am a Jew. There are things that I do, because I am a rabbi. I daven every day, because I am a Jew; I daven at the front of the Shul, because I am a rabbi. I was heartbroken over the tragic attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, because I am a Jew; I travelled to Pittsburgh to represent my shul and the Toronto community, because I am a rabbi.

My plan was to attend funerals and shivas in order to offer consolation to grieving families. This is what halacha requires of us – it is something that I am trained to do well. The shul advertised in an e-mail to our membership that I planned to travel to Pittsburgh, asking for volunteers to participate in the trip. Almost ten people expressed interest. Before setting our itinerary, we waited for the police in Pittsburgh to release the victims’ bodies and for families to make arrangements for burial. I contacted community leaders in Pittsburgh who shared information about how we could be helpful. In the end, scheduling conflicts meant that only Hananel Segal was able to join me for the trip. (Thanks for your help, Hananel.)

We left Toronto on Wednesday October 31 at 6:15 AM. We stopped in Hamiltion for shacharit.

When I travel, I stop at synagogues along the way in order to daven. I like to see cities through their synagogues and communities. I feel the synagogue’s architecture and listen to the conversations as people enter and depart. I did this long before I became a rabbi. Maybe, it was a sign that I would, one day, become a rabbi. The regular pattern of prayer unites us – such that no matter where we are in the world – the structure of communal tefilah allows us to speak to God as one.

As I davened with Rabbi Daniel Green who was saying kaddish for his father, Rabbi Mordechai, who had built that shul, I thought about synagogues: Toronto, Hamilton, Pittsburgh. A commonality linked our existence. Were the people davening with us on that dark wet morning in Hamilton any different from those who had gathered the previous Shabbat in Pittsburgh? Every synagogue is a small embassy of Jewish sovereignty – a location consecrated for being korei beshem hashem – to call out in God’s name – as our forefather Abraham had once done.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, in his classic The Gulag Archipelago, about the ability of places to fold together and to constitute a new virtual geography:

This amazing country of Gulag which, though scattered in an archipelago geographically, was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent – an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country… And this Archipelago crisscrossed and patterned that other country within which it was located, like a gigantic patchwork, cutting into its cities, hovering over its streets. Yet there were many who did not even guess at its presence and many, many others who had heard something vague. And only those who had been there knew the whole truth.

Extending this metaphor: This amazing country of Synagogue the anti-Semite attacked, when he entered Tree of Life. This amazing country of Synagogue the Nazis attacked, on Kristlnacht. Each of us who has heard the words of King David, “Let me dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,” understands that in a psychological sense – it is our fused continent that had been defiled by the sounds of gunfire, as it had been defiled eighty years before.

Upon leaving Hamilton, we travelled to the Peace Bridge to cross into the United States. The US Border Guard asked us:

“Where are you going?” – Pittsburgh.

“How long will you be there?” - Two days.

“What’s the purpose of your trip?” - To offer consolation to the bereaved.

“Thank you for coming here; have a safe trip.”

These short and intense interactions with strangers littered our trip. People in Pittsburgh would stop us in the street to share their feelings of sadness.

As we drove down route I-79, the bright colours of autumnal trees saturated the horizon. The synagogue towards which we were travelling is called Tree of Life. Every year, a tree displays its greatest vibrancy, as it prepares to shed its leaves. How often do we only appreciate a person when they too prepare to depart? We would listen to many stories in Pittsburgh. The stories were like bright leaves. They depicted warm caring people much like those who inhabit Shaarei Shomayim – and every shul in the archipelago. The synagogue regulars at Tree of Life were kedoshim – holy - in their lives. Yet it took a horrific act of terror for us to fully appreciate those holy lives – those bright and special leaves.

While in Pittsburgh, we attended funerals for three of the murdered and visited shivas for three others. Before the ad-hoc memorial erected outside Tree of Life, we stood shoulder to shoulder with so many others, who had come to reflect and to pray at that spot. We delivered beautiful notes from Hillel University students, Netivot HaTorah student letters, and hand painted cards from Baycrest residents to the mourners. We also spoke with Jews in local Pittsburgh shuls and with Pittsburgh citizens in the streets.

I conveyed messages on behalf of those who attended the vigil at Mel Lastman square on the Monday night after the attack. Five thousand Torontonians - Jews and non-Jews – came out on a cold winter night to say we are with you at your time of sorrow. The families of the murdered and the people of Pittsburgh were very appreciative of our love and support.

At the funeral for Sylvan and Bernice Simon on Thursday afternoon, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers opened the floor (of a standing room only chapel) for those who knew the deceased. Judah Samet, an 80+ year old Holocaust survivor, stood up to speak. He said that he and Sylvan shared a common experience as paratroopers: Sylvan in the US Army 101 Airborne, and he in the 1948 Nachal brigade of the IDF. He mentioned how they would chide each other, and he referred to Sylvan as his brother. Judah said, in reflecting on the murdered, that nothing had changed since the Holocaust (Jews are still murdered for being Jews). Yet, he argued that we must be positive in the face of such tragedy.

Judah is right. Yet, today we must appreciate certain crucial differences. Courageous policemen run into synagogues to protect their Jewish neighbours, and an entire city rallies to our defense. How different this moment is from the tragedy of 75 years ago.

Chaim Nachman Bialik travelled from Odessa to Kishinev in 1903 to report on a pogrom. He wrote a poem, “In The City Of Slaughter,” to describe what he saw. It speaks not just about the tragedy, but also about how we as a people process tragedy. So much has changed; and so much remains the same. After this tragic attack in Pittsburgh, a poem remains to be written.

After Judah finished speaking, Rabbi Myer called forward his "regulars" to sing the Simons' favorite Shabbat song: l'dor vador nagid gadlecha. From generation to generation, we will sing Your greatness and forever, will we sanctify Your holiness. This has not changed. kedushatecha nakdish - holy Jews still sanctify God's holiness, until their very last breath. That will never change. This must be a part of that poem.


Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781