Carnegie Mellon University

Walking is my Tribute: Reflections on the Second Anniversary of the Tree of Life Shooting

October 27, 2020

Walking is my Tribute: Reflections on the Second Anniversary of the Tree of Life Shooting

By Abby W. Schachter

Bill Brink

For the better part of a year now, all Americans have had to face a deadly global pandemic, making decisions on how best to respond to the specter of COVID-19. How we choose to respond to crises and tragedies can teach us about ourselves and help us understand our deepest values, both as individuals and as a society.

Today, October 27, 2020, marks the second anniversary of the devastating anti-Semitic shooting attack at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, just minutes away from Carnegie Mellon’s main campus. And like the pandemic, my response to that terrible event has taught me about my own character and highlighted my deepest values. Indeed, I am not alone. 

A selection of reactions and responses to the shooting attack, have been collected in an anthology published by University of Pittsburgh Press entitled Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh writers reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy (242 pages, $25). What follows is a selection from my own essay from that volume entitled “Walking is my Tribute” concerning my connection to the victim of the massacre I knew best, Joyce Fienberg, of blessed memory, and my decision to affirm my own religious tradition by taking on a new Jewish observance of not driving on the Sabbath: 

“[The day after the massacre] and in the days that followed, I learned something else about Joyce. She had a relationship to Judaism that I hadn’t understood before. She had been at Tree of Life that morning because she was one of very few people at shul on time in order to “make a minyan” -- the quorum of ten people needed to form the community of worshippers. Joyce’s husband Steven [Fienberg, CMU professor of Statistics and Social Science] had died in 2016 and she recited Kaddish -- the mourner’s prayer -- at Tree of Life. But rather than stop there, after her personal obligation was fulfilled, she continued to attend synagogue because she’d become one of those members who helps others “make a minyan.” For close to two years, she was so committed to making sure other Jews could pray in community that she showed up week after week, including on that fateful Shabbat. It struck me very hard that she had paid for her commitment to Jewish worship with her life…. 

I began to consider what I wanted from my own response to the shooting. Joyce’s model of Jewish living and fulfilling communal responsibilities was a strong motivator. …

It was the first time I thought to add a Jewish commitment for a particular purpose, that is, to increase the potential perfection of the world through Jewish observance. Traditional Judaism defines the performance of commandments as the effort to fulfill God’s will on earth, today, now. The more Jews fulfill more commandments, the closer we come to achieving a perfected world. …

[I had lived through the 9/11 attacks in New York City and was struck by responses of my fellow Americans and my fellow Jews to that atrocity.] At the time, the outpouring of patriotism, pride and love for America was heartening and strengthening. And indeed, for a while, there were those who became more “hawkish” about national security because of the 9/11 attacks. …

Some years later, I learned that … some American Jews had another response entirely, they became more Jewishly observant and committed to tradition. I heard of a man who decided after the attacks… to only marry a Jewish woman, which he did. Someone else I met, opted to only eat kosher meat, still others started to wear a kippah (skullcap), in public or to the office. I have to admit, before the shooting at Tree of Life, I didn’t get it – the attacks of 9/11 weren’t motivated by anti-Semitism, after all. I couldn’t see the connection between terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and Jewish commitment. Truth be told, I’m not sure I see it any better now. Funnily enough, I know I have friends and acquaintances who don’t understand my decision to observe Shabbat more strictly by not driving …

IN THE DAYS after the shooting, there were multiple expressions of solidarity, creativity and comfort. Yet, there was also a strong and very public political response -- to blame the massacre on President Trump and to “come together” against hate by protesting the current occupant of the White House. Such a response was predictable. Pittsburgh is a city run by Democrats, a city that hosts two distinguished institutions of higher learning that are strongly on the left. It is a city where the Jewish community, like all other American Jewish communities, is majority left of center. On top of that, opposition to President Trump had been obvious and commonplace since his election in 2016. Perhaps I should not have been surprised and yet I was, shocked even. Worse still, as far as I was concerned, those members of the Jewish community who [appropriated] Jewish symbols and texts to conduct their protest campaign, were doing the opposite of what those symbols and texts are meant for. I was told by one such protester that it was her “Jewish values” that informed her outrage toward the President.  

I’m politically engaged and yet the protesters’ logic escaped me. How could it be that the most important response to a sick anti-Semite killing our brethren was for Jewish anti-Trump protestors to read Psalms aloud down the middle of Murray Avenue? The protesters didn’t just want to yell at President Trump and tell him how little they thought of him, his wife, his family, and his policies. They unapologetically used a Jewish text to reject the President. To such people, it was perfectly obvious that left-wing politics and Judaism – the religion, the traditions, and the texts -- were inextricably linked.”

It is striking today that for many who responded to the shooting with political activism, the same lines of separation are in full force in their response to the virus. My social media feeds are full of those who are convinced that electing a new leader is the morally superior position and will potentially do more for the eradication of the disease. Similarly these folks assert that support for the current administration is tantamount to accessory to murder for the poor policy decisions, inconsistency, and failed implementation by the Trump administration.

Once again, it is the response to the emergency or crisis that teaches you about your most basic values. Two years ago, in response to the shooting, my own deepest value was to honor one of the victims and honor my own tradition, with a greater commitment to my Judaism. The best news is that as a consequence, I improved the quality and satisfaction of my life. 

Abby W. Schachter is research fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy and a contributor to the new volume Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh writers reflect on the Tree of Life tragedy published by University of Pittsburgh Press.