A painful Jewish New Year one year after Tree of Life shooting


Czars Trinidad | Layout Editor

Josh Axelrod, Senior Staff Writer

It has been hard to pray this year.

As Jews across the country commemorated the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the joy of the Jewish New Year has been tainted with bitterness. Our sweet, lush apples and honey, eaten to symbolize a fruitful coming year, tasted sour.

Nearly one year has passed since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in which a white supremacist, incensed by the community’s support of refugees, used an AR-15 to kill eleven people during a Saturday morning Shabbat service. He shouted, “All Jews must die,” before opening fire on Oct. 27, 2018.

This was our first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the shadow of this anti-Semitic violence, the country’s deadliest attack on Jews. And it’s been difficult to ward off the darkness and embrace the holiday season’s holiness.

Earlier this month, an armed guard smiled at me as I entered temple for Rosh Hashanah. Of course, I’ve become used to this sight, greeted at countless Shabbat services in the same way. Another guard ushered me inside where I waited to check in and provide my name to a member of the synagogue.

An elderly woman blew past me in line, headed for the sanctuary. A guard shouted at her to stop with a jarring cry of “Ma’am!” She backed up, explaining that her husband was already there and she was late to the service.

Once I took my seat, I couldn’t stop thinking about the incident. How would the guards react if an aggressive figure did try to enter the building? What was their protocol to stop someone? Were there enough guards flanking each entrance? How big of a gun would a shooter need to breach the synagogue’s posted defense?

As we sang Avinu Malkeinu, the iconic High Holy Days prayer acknowledging God’s sovereignty and asking for inscription in the book of good life, my mind wandered to the image of a shooter. I thought despairingly about how many Jews he could kill before police stopped him.

As I sat in the pew, surrounded by other praying Jews, I looked to the man who had wished me “Shana Tova” and explained that he had just moved to New Orleans to begin his career as a doctor. I considered how many other doctors sat in the congregation, picturing my neighbor hunched over fallen congregants, administering care. 

As I played with the fringes of my snow-colored prayer shawl, twirling each strand between distracted fingers, I pictured the room of white cloaked in red.

As I listened to the melodic holiday tunes, only sung once a year, I imagined my father, a prayer leader, chanting the sacred holiday melodies back home in New Jersey. I wondered who would protect him if he had to protect his congregation.

And as my phone sat turned off in my jacket pocket, like a slab of concrete, I dreaded turning it back on to a sea of violent notifications.

I am sure I was not the only Jew sitting anxiously in temple or allowing my mind to wander. The fear of extremism and violence possesses no limits.

This same fear haunts students in middle schools, indoctrinated to the terror with commonplace active shooter drills. Mosque and church-goers also know too well the same bouts of violence in their own communities.

But through unity and interfaith solidarity, we can counter hate.

On Yom Kippur, we concluded the High Holy Days with a final blare of the Shofar, a bugle fashioned out of a ram’s horn based on a centuries-long tradition that dates back to the biblical era. The archaic ritual reminded me of the historic strength and perseverance of our community in the face of violence.

Days earlier, we gathered at parks and creeks to throw pieces of bread into the water for the Tashlich ceremony, symbolically casting away our sins and starting anew. We inaugurated the year 5780 and prayed for a new season of blessing, mercy and sustenance.

In addition to our figurative breadcrumbs, let us also cast away the anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia that plagues our country. And along with our personal prayers, let us pray for the country; for healing, for tolerance and for justice.

With the High Holy Days behind us, I’ve summoned the strength to begin praying again.

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