Poignant New Year for Jewish community scarred by massacre
There will be some differences — and some constants — over the coming days as the New Light congregation observes Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, for the first time since three of its members were among 11 Jews killed by a gunman nearly a year ago at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The man who last year blew New Light’s shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet traditionally sounded to welcome the High Holy Days, was among those killed. Richard Gottfried, 65, a dentist nearing retirement, was one of the congregation’s mainstays in reading the haftara, a biblical passage that follows the Torah reading.
In Gottfried’s place, the shofar will be blown this year by the congregation’s rabbi, Jonathan Perlman. And the venue for the services will not be the Tree of Life synagogue, the site of the massacre. All three congregations that shared space there have been worshipping at neighboring synagogues since the attack on Oct. 27, 2018.
However, Perlman’s wife, writer Beth Kissileff, said the congregation plans no changes in the substance of its services over the two-day holiday that starts Sunday evening.
“I feel conducting Rosh Hashana prayers as we have in the past is a form of spiritual resistance,” Kissileff said. “Part of our defiance of what the shooter was trying to do is to conduct our religious lives with as much normality as possible.”
A week ago, looking ahead to the New Year holiday, Kissileff wrote a first-person article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describing how her congregation was coping.
Referring to the shofar, she said the horn’s sounds are intended to resemble wailing.
“That won’t be hard; there is plenty to wail about this year,” she wrote. “We need to hear this wailing, and be induced to wail ourselves, so that we can change.”
She also noted that many members of the congregation, which numbers about 100 families, deepened engagement in their faith and their community over the past year by attending services more regularly, learning or relearning the skills needed to serve as cantors, or making an effort to learn Hebrew.
As Rosh Hashana arrives, Kissileff wrote, “all American Jews, shocked to our core at the resurgence of violent anti-Semitism here — a country to which our ancestors immigrated as a haven from such things in the rest of the world — will hear the shofar as a wail and scream.”
“However, this deep trauma we have experienced also means we can and need to think about how as a community we can attempt to work through the trauma to achieve meaningful growth,” she added. “It is not uncomplicated, but Rosh Hashanah is coming, and we all have the opportunity to begin again — however difficult.”
She suggested that surviving members of the congregation could honor those who were killed by doing good deeds in their name. She cited slain congregation member Melvin Wax as a role model, recalling his efforts to organize hurricane relief and encourage people to register to vote.
“Those of us who knew the people killed, we just want to honor their memories by continuing to value the things they valued and connect to the traditions the way they did,” she said.
Leaders of Tree of Life’s three congregations have been planning for commemorations on Oct. 27 to mark the passage of one year since the massacre. Planned events include a private Jewish service in the morning, a community service event, and a public memorial service in the evening.
The leaders say they plan to return eventually to the Tree of Life synagogue to worship there regularly, although no date has been set.
“Even now, there are family members who cannot even drive by the building, they are in so much pain,” New Light’s co-president, Stephen Cohen, said last week.
Authorities charged Robert Bowers, 47, a truck driver from Baldwin, Pennsylvania, in the synagogue attack. Bowers, who has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial, faces the death penalty if convicted; authorities say he expressed anti-Semitic hatred before and during the attack.
Kissileff said her husband, Rabbi Perlman, has been limiting his media availability heading into the Jewish holidays. But she shared a poem that he recently co-authored with two other rabbis, commemorating the martyrdom of the 11 slain worshippers.
One of its verses reads:
“We buried our bodies.
And upon them we wept
And even so, this did not break us.
Nonetheless we were steadfast in our place
And we continued to stand.”