A woman in her 90s. An 88 year old jokester. A family doctor. Two “inseparable” brothers who faced mental challenges and were unwavering volunteers. A couple married at Tree of Life over 60 years’ ago. A researcher at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center. A dentist and runner. A youth coach.
These eleven lives were taken from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life community, indeed from all of us, on Saturday. Add this to the 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017 (following a 34% increase in 2016), mostly on school and college campuses – and it is clear that we are well beyond the point now of ever attempting to categorize what happened on Saturday as an isolated, apolitical incident. The last statements of the shooter make clear that he was only the latest violent example of the online-supported nationalist radicalization that has infiltrated our lives and our entire globe.
This radicalization, despite the times where it co-opts the language of faith, is antithetical to the definition of faith that we uphold at Walker Center: a spiritual connection and commitment to the Divine, to our world, and to our fellow humanity, that finds concrete expression and through various religious traditions—and which must therefore shape our practices towards the common good, and our political (i.e., for the sake of the polis) aspirations towards justice and equality.
For the eleven people above, and all who were injured and scarred by Saturday's attack, faith was and is an important part of their lives. Faith contributed to their community becoming a target of violence. Tree of Life is a spiritual home, where people live out their commitment to the G_d of the Torah and to their neighbors, through the love and life they share. Even if they do not all believe the same things, in a world full of hatred faith still brought them together, and provided a place where their love could be activated and their hope renewed. Such love and hope threaten hate.
Rabbi Yosef Itkin, of the Baal Shem Tov Shul congregation in the same Squirrel Hill neighborhood as Tree of Life, reportedly told a writer for The Atlantic on Sunday, “‘You can’t chase away darkness with a broom. You have to chase away darkness with light.’”
Right now, I don’t know if any of us have a foolproof plan on how to combat the world-wide nationalist fervor that is feeding some of our nation’s darkest legacies (of Anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-LGBTQ, anti-indigenous, etc.) and encouraging them out of the shadows. All I know is that, as the rabbi says, we have to chase such darkness away with light – the all-embracing light of faith. We must commit to greater study and understanding, and to more direct action, in order to fight these dangerous trends. Through it all, we must commit to each other, to our own spiritual homes, and to our interfaith sisters and brothers. We must continue to gather together to pray, learn, sing, and love – to find our bread for the journey.
Here, our prayers and thoughts will remain with Tree of Life, long after the news outlets have moved on. And to all the faith and interfaith communities who call Walker a spiritual home away from home, who in spite of the landscape continue to chase darkness away with light -- we send you all our heartfelt gratitude and love today. Keep fighting, and keep shining.