Tree of Life synagogue: A look into community and faith following tragedy

Jon is a 2018 graduate of RC who is currently attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for graduate school. He received a first-hand view of the mourning that the Pittsburgh community has seen following the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue. He was kind enough to take time to give us insight into what he has witnessed. - Nicklas Grifhorst, editor in chief.

By Jonathon Hogan
Shield Alumni

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Well God, I want. What I want you can’t give me.”  

Jeffrey Myers’ words thundered across the packed Soldiers and Sailors Hall. I sat and listened to his honest appraisal of the situation in total and utter agreement. God, I want. I want the events of Oct. 28, 2018 to be forever expunged from history. I want Robert Bowers to never have entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I want the pain and suffering in the Jewish community to have never occurred, and I want it now.

I hope I am not the first to tell you that on Oct. 28, 2018, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh suffered a tragic hate crime. For those of you who may not be aware, I shall relay what CNN has so graciously provided in its own play-by-play assessment of the events of Oct. 28, 2018. At 9:49 a.m., in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire during a service. By 9:55 a.m., police officers are dispatched and fired upon from the synagogue by Mr. Bowers. By 11:04 a.m., the ordeal is over, but not after 11 people are murdered. Robert Bowers tells police, “All these Jews need to die.”

On Saturday, the people of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary gathered to hear a report from Police Chaplain, and one of our Deans, John Welch as he relayed the situation at the Jewish Community Center and the condition of the grieving. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, we gathered in cars and went down to a vigil organized by high school students who said they put it together because “[they] didn’t want to be alone tonight.” With candles in our hands, we sang “One Day” by Matisyahu in an impromptu jam session as night fell on Pittsburgh.

But that was raw, incomprehensible Saturday; today is Sunday. Today, the elected officials and clergy and victims and Pittsburghers gather in an official, inter-faith expression of grief for the Jewish community.

Michael stands unassumingly to my left along the wall of the hall. His focus is riveted on the stage below and the people who are here to express grief. Several times, he offers his seat on the steps to an older woman, a Jewish man, and a young student who walks by without a place to sit. He tells me he’s been a Pittsburgher all his life, and these people are his neighbors. “We’ve got to come together at some point,” he says while offering his spot next to me to an older Jewish man. He has come here to serve in any way he can, and that means he offers his seat to any who passes. “Love will always win, it’s inevitable,” he says definitively to me.

The other stories I hear amaze me as much as these two. One woman holds her hospital pager while sitting and listening to the speakers. Some come from out of town. Some, like speaker Naftali Bennett, come from across the globe to mourn and comfort those whose lives have been turned upside down by this hate crime. Other people are neighbors and friends who simply hope to provide some level of comfort to the broken. Really, we all meet to help our Jewish neighbors in any way we can. In this time and place, that means showing up and being present with them as they grieve.

As I reflect on this time and place, I cannot help but see another biblical story rising to the surface. In Genesis 28:10-17, Jacob, later named Israel, sees a vision of a stairway to Heaven. I believe what happened Sunday night was indeed a stairway to Heaven. In the deep grief and pain of our Jewish brethren, mixed with the good intentions and hopes of non-Jews, the people ascended to God’s very presence. There, as Rabbi Myers says, our heads were anointed with oil in the midst of our enemies: tragedy and hatred. There God promised his presence anew to the Jewish community and to Pittsburgh. There we ascended the steps and began the journey from grief to hope. There Bethel, or “house of God,” rose above hatred and Anti-Semitism to love one another. That’s what Myers meant to me in that time and place, and I hope Myers can mean that for you too. ,


With these thoughts, I do not seek to encapsulate a moment or attempt to fully express the grief and sorrow of the Jewish community and their neighbors; instead I offer my humble observations of this memorial in hopes God may too use it to encourage. While not an important opinion, I hope mine might be used to encourage and build up those who are suffering and perhaps in some small way contribute to God’s healing for the community.

God, redeemer and keeper of Israel and the whole Earth, I pray the good intentions of all those who sow love be brought to fruition so that we all will love our Jewish brothers and sisters better both now and forever, God my rock and my redeemer, Amen.