This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about last Saturday’s shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue. The aftermath of the shooting involved a ritual that I have come to loathe. Each time I do it, I desperately hope it will be the last but I also know that it will not be.
After every mass shooting, I await news of the victims. There is something about these terrible, unspeakable incidents that requires that I read the names of those whose lives were so tragically taken. While I also read about the incident itself, it’s the list of the names of the victims that offers a focal point. I watch and wait for the list, the names and ages, and the bits of story about each one.
For the Tree of Life shooting, along with the location of the shooting and the profoundly disturbing anti-Semitic rhetoric of the shooter, the ages of the victims stood out for me. So many of them “older” people, all gathered in a place of faith, of sanctuary, of community, a place that likely felt as familiar as home.
The victims appeared to be a lot like the people who gather at my church, and how we gather on Sunday mornings. Old South is also a congregation of mostly older people. There’s a lot of gray hair, wrinkles and people who generally move around with slowness and caution.
Like Tree of Life, Old South has people who have distinctive roles in the congregation. Each Sunday morning is, among other things, an exercise in mundane ritual: unlocking the doors; turning on the lights and sound system; preparing the space for worship; etc.
Those who were so violently murdered were not simply going about their ordinary lives. They were going about those little acts that are part of a community of faith. They were doing those little things that probably most other people hardly noticed, except that those small acts spelled out welcome and a careful attention to the significance of the community itself as a gathering of the people of God.
According to the New York Times, David and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers in their 50s, were almost always in the synagogue, greeting everyone who came with a “Good Shabbos” and a ready prayer book. Melvin Wax, 87, took on many tasks — from leading services to changing light bulbs.
In reading the names of those murdered at Tree of Life, it’s hard not to think of my congregation, the familiar rituals of worship, and the dedication of the older folks who take it upon themselves to do all of those little things that make worship happen.
One of the headlines referred to the victims as “guardians of the faith.” They were people who recognized that one vital component of the faith is community—the sort of community that welcomes, brings meaning and hope and joy. They didn’t simply participate in community. They fostered it.
It’s this angle of the story that brings another layer of grief and sadness. I didn’t know any of the victims, yet I suspect that I know people just like them—guardians of the faith. Guardians of community.
The loss of these good people, at the hands of a man full of hatred, ought to inspire people of faith—older and younger— to renew their commitment to community, and to seek out ways of strengthening communities of love, compassion and peace—in big ways, and in lots of small ways too.
May you rest in peace: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.