The Pittsburgh Massacre: No Answers, Just Choices

October 29, 2018 by Sarah Bendetsky
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Pittsburgh was my home for two years. Although, it was very different from anything I’ve ever experienced in Moscow − from architecture, food, weather, lifestyle to the stubborn foreign language − one thing that stood out was its people…writes Sarah Bendetsky.

See, people are nice in Pittsburgh. And by nice I mean people, who take time to greet a stranger, ask how your day is and genuinely wish you ‘Shabbat Shalom!’ − Jewish or non-Jewish − it’s irrelevant.

I remember the mid-aged lady who was a crossing guard on one of the streets. She instantly ‘scanned’ my mood while crossing the road and asked what was going on in school and why wasn’t I smiling…

Sarah with her Pittsburgh crossing guard

Well, what could I tell her? In Russia, where I grew up, it’s uncommon to smile at strangers. Historically, one never knew who was a traitor and who was a decent person so people opened up their souls to friends… But once trust was built, such friends were equal to your family.

… By the end of the week, the crossing guard noted that I had a beautiful smile. I was disarmed.

Another thing that astonished me in Pittsburgh were the entrance doors. Made of wood and secured with a wobbly lock that was barely used, it drove me nuts.

− But what if someone breaks into the house in the middle of the night? − I asked in bewilderment.

− Like a squirrel? It’s a quiet area, there is nothing to worry about… − was the typical answer.

Those fluffy squirrels loved jumping from one leafy tree to another; there were plenty to choose from. I loved looking at them as I walked to school, passing through the Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill.

Fascinated by a myriad of synagogues and kosher & Judaica shops, I finally understood what it meant to be openly Jewish, not having to hide your Magen David underneath layers of clothes; not turning back to make sure no one was following your Dad who wore a yarmulka…

Suddenly, I felt like Harry Potter who found himself in the magical world of Diagon Alley where being a wizard was completely normal.

Soon after moving to Pittsburgh, I bought my first Chanukiah candelabra designed as the Kotel wall. The salesperson asked whether I wanted to pack the Chanukiah in a coloured or a see-through wrap. The answer was clear; there was nothing to hide and so much to be proud of.

… Pittsburgh, the city where I met extraordinary people who opened their homes and hearts to strangers − including myself − on a daily basis… who volunteered in community centres, hospitals and nursing homes and shared their passion with everyone around them.

Each Friday, together with the rest of Yeshivah School girls, we boarded the minivans and buses operated by volunteers and went to aged care facilities around the city. It was a part of the curriculum and, more importantly, a vital component in setting the values right.

Sarah [right]

I was ‘in charge’ of the Russian-speaking seniors. Throughout the week, they wrote down the questions about Judaism they were too afraid to ask under the Communism regime… I looked forward to these deep, philosophical conversations… and cookies the residents shared with me.

However, for Mrs Schulman, our Maths teacher who was always busy assisting someone in the community, it wasn’t enough. Almost at sunset on Fridays, I religiously followed her to another aged care facility where she helped a 103-year-old lady with Parkinson’s to light the Shabbat candles. Mrs Schulman gently held her shaky hands; a twinkle of light illuminated the room; together, they covered their eyes and whispered the everlasting blessing, making this world a brighter place…

… It’s been a while since I left Pittsburgh to discover Montreal, New York and finally settling in Melbourne. As it often happens, we tend to believe that no matter what happens in our own lives, the cities of our past remain the same. And then the reality strikes when you expect it the least.

This Sunday morning I logged onto Facebook in my Melbourne home to find out about the Pittsburgh massacre. It was surreal; out of all places in the world, Pittsburgh seemed untouchable.

I couldn’t believe the shocking images of distressed people waiting for the updates about their loved ones and those of the police storming The Tree of Life Synagogue I passed by a million times as a schoolgirl… As the victim numbers grew, I frantically checked if my classmates, teachers and friends in Pittsburgh were finally online.

The police had no doubt that the innocent people who came to the synagogue to pray were slain by blind, vicious hatred. The attacker screamed “Death to all Jews”…  and the year was 2018, not 1939…

It’s hard to comprehend that such things can happen in our times, in a so-called free, democratic country like the US. But if you think about it, Germany was also an educated, intelligent, progressive country with a huge Jewish population pre-World War II… the rest is history.

Several years ago, I was lucky to interview a sole Holocaust survivor in Melbourne. L. led a secluded life and wasn’t interested in religious conversations unlike the Russian-speaking seniors in Pittsburgh. Eventually, he shared his story with me.

L. grew up in a religious home in Poland; his father was a distinguished Rabbi and the Head of a synagogue. L. graduated from a prestigious yeshivah, got married to a beautiful girl and had a baby. And then the war broke out…

Like so many other survivors, L. witnessed the unbearable; his whole life was crushed in one day when the Nazis locked down the synagogue where his family was praying and set the building on fire… Later on, they grabbed his 18-month-old son and smashed his head against the brick wall in front of his eyes…

… Is there a way to forget such level of pain and move on? I doubt it. Do I have the right to judge him for being disturbed by G-d’s plans? Not for a second. All I can say is that L. was brave enough to start anew. He moved to Australia, got married and had children, and generously gave of his time to help other survivors.

We will never have all the answers; all we have is choices − some, just like thousands of years ago, prefer to blame the Jews as the scapegoat for all the wrongdoings out there, as it is easier than fixing one’s own issues, while others are busy holding someone’s hands at the time of need and making the world a brighter place.

May the memory of 11 Jewish martyrs − Joyce Feinberg, David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Bernice Symon, Sylvan Symon, Rose Malinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger and Melvin Wax − who died in Pittsburgh for the “crime” of being Jewish be a blessing.

May we find the strength to continue bringing the light into the world.

Sarah Bendetsky lives in Melbourne

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