When news started filtering out about the shooting at Tree of Life, I was in Israel for the first time. Along with 10 other women from Pittsburgh and 600+ from around the world, I was participating in a Momentum trip for Jewish moms that was heavily subsidized by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project.
My Pittsburgh group and a couple of others were underground in the Old City of Jerusalem, enjoying a light meal to end Shabbat at a lone soldiers’ club where the walls of the Second Temple were visible (lone soldiers are people who come to Israel from other countries to serve in the army and don’t have any family in the country). As we ate, we had a parade of speakers, including a volunteer and soldier who had been in the Israel Defense Forces(IDF) for five months. After they each spoke, Rivki—originally from New York—revealed that the soldier was her son. She said, “You worry if your teenager is at the movies or the mall. We worry about whether our son or daughter is at the Gaza or Syria border. This is a reality for all parents in Israel.”
Little did we know that we would soon be facing a new reality: The largest attack on Jews in the United States. I had no cell reception, but a few others in my group did. One lives across the street from Tree of Life; her husband texted her about the shooting. We were shocked and desperate for more information. We all knew family and friends who are members, and at least one person in my group grew up attending that synagogue.
As word spread throughout the building, the two Israelis who were on our bus for the whole trip came over to be with us. We returned to the Western Wall later that evening to pray for everyone back home.
The following morning, I woke up to discover that my husband’s relatives Cecil and David Rosenthal were killed in the shooting. My group knew other victims as well. It was hard for us to not be in Pittsburgh, but it felt right being in Israel. The irony didn’t escape us that we were safer in Israel than back home. With all the tragedy Israelis have experienced, they should be jaded, but they’re actually more empathetic.
In fact, the compassion and support we felt from Israelis were overwhelming. There are so many examples I could share with you: The speaker who began her presentation by asking that we all rise for a few minutes of silence for the victims, not knowing Pittsburgh women were in attendance. The waiter—one of many Israelis—who stopped in his tracks, put his hand over his heart, and expressed sympathy when he found out we were from Pittsburgh. Jerusalem’s Old City walls, which were lit up with a sign featuring both country’s flags and the words “We are with you Pittsburgh!” The scribe at the top of Masada who lit a memorial candle in honor of the victims and was writing psalms in their memory. I could go on.
Our group was also invited to the Knesset, which is Israel’s Congress. We met with the Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, who said Israelis know how we feel, and that we’re all one family. “You can kill one Jew,” he said, “but you can’t kill the Jewish people.”
When we signed up for the trip, the Pittsburgh group was given the opportunity to extend by two days to visit Karmiel/Misgav, Pittsburgh’s sister city. One of the programs we visited was a nonprofit called HaShomer HaChadash. We met at one of their farms, where the program manager talked about the tragedy and how we’re all one community. They created a memorial grove for the 11 victims, so we dug and planted 11 trees in their honor.
We attended two moving vigils—one in Jerusalem the night of the shooting, and one in Karmiel/Misgav. Everywhere we went, we were the face of Pittsburgh; a tangible way for people to address the tragedy. We were given many cards, notes and thoughts to bring back to Pittsburgh. As someone in my group wrote, “We felt like we were being swept up in one huge, tight hug.”
We returned to a colder Pittsburgh in the midst of fall—trees bursting with color and leaves covering the ground—and found a city that has experienced an attack on its own and shown the country and world what we’re made of. We’re stronger together.