Attack on Pittsburgh Jews

Yesterday at my synagogue we had just finished the torah reading and held a baby naming for a young family when the first cell phone rang. Some people carry cell phones on Shabbat and sometimes forget to silence them; you shrug and move on. Then the second one went off. Then the first one went off again. Then more. People started checking to see what was going on. And we learned that a nearby congregation, the one I attend for weekday services, was currently under attack and the killer had not yet been caught. Not only were we scared, but we all know people there -- one of the members of my weekday morning minyan was there with me yesterday (for the baby-naming), and we exchanged horrified looks. We locked the doors, hastily finished the morning service, packed up the nice kiddush spread that the family had prepared to celebrate their daughter's naming, and waited for news. (All of the staff and some others have had active-shooter training -- that we should need such things is terrible in itself -- so we looked to our rabbi for guidance.)

We couldn't get any police guidance (they were understandably busy). We heard that he'd been caught and waited long enough for that report to be disputed, which it wasn't. Eventually we had to decide whether to stay put or disperse. Most of us concluded that hey, we're in a synagogue so maybe we should get the hell out of here, and left. I asked somebody for a ride home to minimize my time on the streets. We made sure nobody walked home.

Later I heard more details (answering the phone seemed prudent that day), that the killer was a white-supremicist monster on a "Jews must die" rampage, and most horribly, that he'd succeeded in killing eleven people and wounding half a dozen more. Almost certainly that list included friends -- it seems plausible that the people who show up to a weekday morning minyan regularly would also be the ones who show up on Shabbat on time, and the murders were early during the service. Nobody knew who, though, and that was very tense.

There were phone messages from out of state before I even got home, and calls from out of the country soon after; I guess it's not surprising that this would be international news but, wow, that was fast. I made a judgement call, apologized to God, and posted a short entry on Dreamwidth and sent a one-word tweet ("safe") to ease the concerns of people I know all over the world who would be worried about me. Yeah, the Internet is truly global and we form real communities and real bonds. (Last night I asked on Mi Yodeya whether I violated a biblical or rabbinic prohibition, and today I asked if, theoretically, a Jewish court could execute a non-Jew. I guess one of the ways I process horrifying events is through study? Today I learned.)

There was a vigil last night in the center of Squirrel Hill. The crowd was huge; I later learned about 3000, which is a lot for the intersection we overflowed. The police had blocked off streets and there was media there. Somebody organized that in about four hours, wow. I looked in vain for friends from Tree of Life and, specifically, the weekday minyan, but it was a large crowd and it was dark and I didn't find anybody. I sent email to my closest friend in that minyan and got no reply all night. Email and blog comments and tweets and direct messages and chat pings rolled in all day and evening. I didn't know what to tell anybody -- do I need anything? don't know! -- but I felt very comforted.

My minyan friend sent email this morning, thank God, and officials announced the names of the victims who, yes, included other minyan friends. (Aside: there is a special circle of hell -- I don't believe in hell but let's postulate it for the sake of this sentence -- for news services that write headlines like "names of victims announced" over articles that contain no names of victims. Took me three tries.) Some synagogues cancelled activities today and others said we will stay open and not let murderous terrorists win; of course everybody is clamping down on security. Tree of Life is closed and roads around it are still blocked off by the police; another congregation has already invited them in.

I heard that Trump said that if the synagogue had had an armed guard this wouldn't have happened. Victim-blaming, really? First, almost no houses of worship have armed guards so far as I know, and we for one cannot afford one even if we thought that was a good idea (we hire police for the high holy days only), and I don't know that a police officer with a pistol (or similar) could stop a rampaging neo-Nazi brandishing an assault rifle anyway. It'd just be one more body.

They caught the murderer, which means there will be a lengthy investigation (of the "alleged" killer, as if anybody denies it!) and trial and many appeals before, maybe, he gets the death penalty he deserves. It's times like this when I'm glad we still have a death penalty, even though it is often mis-applied. Part of me wishes that, when he was shooting at the police officers and SWAT team, somebody had blown his brains out on the spot. He doesn't sound like the sort of person who will be in any way moved by having to look the families of his victims in the eye and hear their testimony. If he claims insanity (despite the obvious premeditation) then he's a rabid wild animal who needs to be put down in the name of public safety, and if he doesn't claim insanity then he's an evil monster who ceded his rights to endless appeals of the obvious the first time he pulled that trigger.

I am sad and angry and shocked.

I don't blame God for what happened even as I say baruch dayan ha-emet, blessed is the true judge. God gave us free will and the evils humans do to each other are on those humans, not God. The rate of those evils has been going in the wrong direction for quite some time in our country and our world, sometimes organically and sometimes urged on by demagogues in power (White House I am looking at you), and I feel pretty helpless about that.

For those of you who don't know the neighborhood, somebody linked to this description of Squirrel Hill that's pretty spot-on. We're all connected here.