The day was perfect. My daughter looked up from the Torah after chanting her third Aliyah, took a deep breath, and smiled at the congregation, a look of pride all over her face. Our synagogue was filled with family and friends from near and far, temple members and non-members, individuals of different religions and ethnicities, to celebrate my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
I sat in the front row, brimming with pride and overwhelming pleasure at her accomplishment. Little did I know that at that very moment just one state away, a deeply disturbed gunman was entering a synagogue to commit a grievous hate crime against innocent worshippers.
It wasn’t until our guests had filed into the adjoining social hall, where laughter rang out and hugs were exchanged, that my father pulled me aside to tell me the news. It had popped up on his phone just as my two daughters, surrounded by their five cousins ranging in age from sixteen to two-and-a-half, were reciting the HaMotzi blessing on the bimah.
My heart sank. I looked at my parents, frozen, wondering how this could be true. How could such horrible news infringe on such a beautiful morning? The week had already been filled with disturbing news stories – pipe bombs sent through the mail and a foiled shooting at a church with a mostly black congregation that ended in the loss of life at a Kentucky Kroger’s. Hate was on the rise, like an unchecked cancer, but this story hit too close to home. My first thought was...It could have been us.
I knew immediately I didn’t want my daughter to find out. I didn’t want this to spoil her day, a day she had been working toward for the past six months. I glanced at the table where she sat surrounded by friends and felt a moment of peace. Her school is large with a diverse population. Her table represented a mini united nations. Their laughter bubbled up through the room.
When we were finally home that afternoon, I allowed myself to read the details of that morning’s shooting. I began to feel the sinking sense of despair that has so recently plagued me. I knew a case could be made, again, for better gun control and mental health services, but I didn’t want to think about all those arguments at that particular moment. It all felt like a broken record to me.
More than anything I felt sad. I felt a deep aching sadness for the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, because like myself, they had been gathered to practice our shared faith in a peaceful, private manner, not infringing on anyone else’s rights. I felt sad because there would forever be a stain on the memory of that day, a day I only wanted to remember as beautiful and lovely. I felt sad because earlier generations of my own family had already experienced antisemitism in its most grand-scale form, with so many of my relatives surviving the Holocaust and moving to America in the hopes of practicing their faith in peace.
I felt sad for my children who have to grow up in a world where going to school, the grocery store, and places of worship are vulnerable to this hate. And I felt angry. Oh yes, I was angry.
So what does it take to end this cycle of violence and hatred in our country today? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t pretend to have the answers. All I know is that something somehow has to change.
After the evening party ended (the Hora was danced, the slideshow was shown, photos were taken and glasses chimed to the sound of Mazel Tov) my daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, this was the best night of my life.” I held her in a close hug and kissed her head and thought, this is how I will remember this day. In honor of those killed, I will continue to celebrate my faith, my family, and my traditions. I will fight hate with love and work to make the world a little kinder and inclusive. As I looked down into my daughter’s happy face, it was easy to imagine a better tomorrow.