My trip to Pittsburgh

On Monday night of this week, I received an email from my synagogue saying that a bus would be leaving for Pittsburgh at 7 am the next morning to allow people to attend the funeral of David and Cecil Rosenthal, two gentle souls with fragile x syndrome who had been murdered in the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue by a coward whose name does not bear mentioning.

For reasons I did not fully understand at the time, I felt a sudden compulsion to go. David and Cecil Rosenthal died simply because they were Jewish and had been present on a Shabbat morning at services. Going to the funeral and swelling the crowd with even just a single additional person seemed like a statement worth making, even if I wasn’t sure what that statement was.

Epictetus, the stoic, writes;

When you see any one weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad, or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil; but discriminate, and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself, — for another man might not be hurt by it, — but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him, and if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly too.

I think that’s bad advice. I think it’s important to groan inwardly if you can. As my teacher Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels like to say, we want to be all in. We want to experience life fully, the ups and the downs. And if we try to avoid the emotional turmoil that comes with tragedy, we will not be fully open to joy.

By going, I hoped to feel something stronger than I had felt merely reading about the tragedy and then going on with my life. Unimaginably, we live in a time where Jews are killed just for being Jews. I didn’t like the idea that I could go about my life as if nothing had happened other than some unpleasant news.

So I signed up for what turned out to be a four hour bus ride there and a five hour bus ride on the way home that night. Waking at 5:15am the next morning, I found myself secretly hoping that no one else had made a reservation and the trip had been cancelled. But about 30 people ended up going, many of them friends, many, like me, unsure of what had compelled them to spend a day on a bus to attend a funeral of people we did not know.

I brought an overcoat, expecting to have to stand outside during the funeral, but we got there early enough to get a seat in the balcony. The funeral was held at Rodef Shalom, an extraordinary building built in 1906. The news stories I read later said there were hundreds in attendance, but it was closer to thousands. Every seat was filled in a building I later learned seats 1000 people. A few hundred people lined the sides of the auditorium and others stood outside.

The funeral wasn’t for me, of course, or the unknown number of people who had come from out of town to be present. By that I mean it wasn’t a service about the story behind the events of a few days before. It was a service to comfort the parents and siblings of these two sweet souls known as “the boys,” men in their 50’s as innocent as boys — gentle, funny, and kind. As someone in our group said later, it was the same funeral the boys would have received if they had died in their sleep in old age. Somehow that made the listening even sadder as their caskets sat in the front of this enormous, somber, respectful crowd.

Somewhere in the middle of the service, I realized that the family had in some sense given their sons over to the world and were sharing their loss with us. These were our boys, too, in so many ways. Our hearts, too, were broken. So many of us have known people like David and Cecil who get adopted by the congregation and who in turn lift the congregation up with their innocence. I don’t know if there is anything sadder than a parent having to bury a child. There was no way of knowing if the presence of all those strangers like me in the house made the family’s unbearable burden heavier or lighter, but at some point I realized I was no longer an observer fulfilling an obligation that I didn’t fully understand, but a mourner.

The funeral was not long, maybe 45 minutes. We had planned at that point to walk to the Tree of Life synagogue where the murders had happened, pray the afternoon service, and return home. Instead, a group of about 50 of us walked behind Rodef Shalom, where the hearses were waiting, and we stood there and sang Jewish songs of comfort a few feet from the hearses holding the caskets.

A number of people there were parents with their children. I sang with my eyes closed much of the time, but when I opened them I would steal a glimpse of those parents, arms around their children. It was hard not to look because those mothers and fathers were glowing with a mixture of love for their children and a yearning to safeguard them from the storms of life, a yearning that can never be fulfilled. All of us, I suspect, were intensely aware of the fragility of life and its impermanence at that moment. But those who had come with their children were overwhelmed by it. They could not hide it the way we usually do, insulating ourselves from fear of the unknown. Their emotions shone forth from them and I had a sudden longing to be with my own children and to hold them. But all I could do was close my eyes and let the voices around me mingle with my longing and fill the heart.

After the hearses left, we walked to the Tree of Life. The streets leading to the synagogue were barricaded off. About 150 people milled around at the corner where the building sat, ringed with dozens of police officers, security guards, and members of the media with still cameras and video equipment. We didn’t know it, but many were there because President Trump was scheduled to be there later that day. I just thought they were there for protection and human interest.

We sang up a storm lifting our voices together in pain and passion. Rabbis spoke of the need for love to overcome hate and the power of Jewish unity. We were certainly united. Jews of all flavors were there. But we weren’t alone. There was a Christian monk, a pastor, and two Mennonite women in the crowd. They and others who were not Jewish came out of respect and human solidarity. It was surreal for us all to be gathered there, singing songs in Hebrew in front of dozens and dozens of bouquets of flowers laid before 11 white Jewish stars, each with the name of a victim, in front of the building we had all seen over and over on the news, in front of a few dozen police officers, in front of a dozen TV cameras.

Someone from our group said later that in modern American life, when you pass someone on the street, you rarely make eye contact. But that day in that place was different. As we walked on the streets of Pittsburgh that day in the neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, the people we passed looked at us with sympathy and with what looked a lot like love. We must have been doing the same. I felt a hunger for human connection in the face of death and despair, a desire to connect with fellow human beings made in the image of God and to look into the eyes of those I passed with recognition that we were in this together.

I found myself at one point standing next to the two Mennonite women. I introduced myself, something that would have never happened on a normal day on a normal street corner and thanked them for being there. They were from Oakland, a suburb of Pittsburgh, they said. Why did you come I asked. I don’t remember their answer, probably because it wasn’t so specific. I think it was something about just wanting to be there.

I stopped and thanked many of the police officers on the street in front of the funeral and on the street near the corner of the Tree of Life synagogue. I simply thanked them for being there. They all showed appreciation at the gesture, but some went further and expressed sympathy. They looked in my eyes and told me they were sorry. As one of our group said later, some of the police acted as if they had let us down and that murders like these should never happen. They represented their city with dignity and grace.

The great chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman, writes that the whole entire world is a narrow bridge — the essential thing is not to be afraid. Fear often keeps us from looking into the eyes of another. That day, we were not quite ourselves. The experience of death and unity broke down the normal barriers we put up for what feels like protection. On that day, we had a longing to see and be seen by others without fear or care.

Later that day, a friend sent me a text from a friend in Pittsburgh, Judge Dan Butler, who had attended the funeral I had been at. He summarized the experience saying:

And in every way possible, our family showed up. Our fractious, contentious, resilient, far-flung, caring, and generous, and loving family. The Jewish family.

That’s exactly right. Like any family, we have our ups and downs. We argue and sometimes fight and sometimes avoid each other and sometimes stay away from home. But there are times when we put aside our differences and come together for each other. That day in Pittsburgh was one of those times. That’s probably the real reason I and many others found ourselves traveling unexpectedly to Pittsburgh on a Tuesday for a funeral of people we had never met or known. We were family. We needed to be together to mourn and sing and comfort each other. We showed up. It was all, alas, that we could do.