When Horror Brings You Home
The Pittsburgh shooting last week hit home for me, literally. Tree of Life was my childhood synagogue, and I grew up in the Squirrel Hill community. Since the tragedy, I’ve been reconnecting with friends there, and it’s been incredibly healing. So has reading endless op-eds about life in Squirrel Hill and in Pittsburgh. The area was such an authentic, wholesome place to grow up, and from the looks of things, it still is. As I read these reflections, I knowingly nod, smile, and relate to every word. But to my surprise, reading them has also made me recognize a hole in my heart, which has unknowingly been there for a long time. I have missed home and the feelings that these reflections portray — true belonging and genuine connection.
As the events unfolded so many of us turned towards Facebook for community and connection. Until 10/27, I never appreciated how many of my online friends were from home. On that Saturday, I logged in, like so many, to find out if everyone was okay. What happened? Any word on who the victims might be? I continuously hit refresh, noting those who marked themselves as safe.
Some reported what they heard and saw. My Dad’s best friend, the President of Allegheny General Hospital, who is now lovingly known as Dr. Cohen in the media, sent out an email first letting us know that his mother in law was (uncharacteristically) not at services that day. Then, since he lives directly across from the synagogue, he shared his chilling first-hand account, recalling what he had witnessed from his front yard as he watched the horror unfold. He praised the police officers who he watched run into gunfire, and he shared that the shooter was being treated at his hospital, by congregants of Tree of Life. “A life is a life,” he compassionately shared, and the shooter needed medical attention. As Dr. Cohen was trying to make sense of the killings, he also reminded us of what it means to be human.
So often the voices of those who were there have the greatest ability to create change. Think of the teens from Parkland, who launched a nationwide gun-control coalition in the wake of their school’s tragic shooting. Just as Dr. Cohen is emerging to model behavior for humanity, the leadership we see among those most closely afflicted is a powerful reminder of connection and community.
We heal through community. We heal by being together, and while I bemoan the social media world of today and the insecurities it fosters, in times of crisis, it helps. Ironically, when we feel most vulnerable and open up the part of us that we normally exert the most effort to hide, social media can help. It can unify and it can create solidarity. I hate that it is “hate” and an “act of hate” that drove us to need one another. But even in the absence of hate, we need each other — it’s just easier to forget, or we’re too afraid to let one another know.
I long for the gentleness, peace, and calm of my childhood, when I walked to Tree of Life with no fear. When I innocently played hide and seek in the same rooms that later provided both refuge and a trap to some of the victims. I fondly remember my religious school principal, David Dinkins, who is still alive today at 95. I know this thanks to all the reflections being shared in newspapers around the world by people who grew up in Squirrel Hill— some of whom I know and some of whom I don’t. But whether I know them or not— we have experiences in common, and that connects us. While this act of hate hit home, it also reconnected me to that home and to the feeling of belonging that I missed.
Brené Brown has extensively researched what she calls “the crisis of disconnection”. She notes how we have separated ourselves into factions based on politics and ideologies that actually boil down to one singular fear: the fear of vulnerability. Pittsburgh is my hometown. Tree of Life was my synagogue. I was Bat Mitzvah’d there. I grew up nine doors away. And Squirrel Hill was my community— a community where I always felt safe and where I always belonged. Because of tragedy, I now know I still do. According to Dr. Brown, “True belonging is not passive. It's not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It's not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it's safer. It's a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.” Walking into reconnection through the tragedy at Tree of Life has definitely required tremendous courage — but the payoff of filling the hole in my heart through true belonging has changed my life for the better, forever.