This weekend, our community lost an incredible woman, a young mother, extraordinary teacher and tremendous example, Dannie Grajower z”l. On the way back from her funeral in NY, I sent this letter to our BRS community reflecting on her loss and the horrific tragedy in Pittsburgh that is on all of our minds.
Dear BRS Family,
This past weekend was filled with two horrific tragedies, one that shook the Jewish community globally and another that affected our community locally. Before Shabbos was even over, word spread of the tragic murder of eleven innocent people in Pittsburgh who had come to their Synagogue, Tree of Life, simply to pray, celebrate, and experience community. The ADL characterized this atrocity as the greatest anti-Semitic attack in US history. The moment Shabbos ended, we got word from Rabbi Josh Grajower that his extraordinary wife Dannie, a treasured member of, and teacher in, our community and a young mother of three, had succumbed to her illness and passed away. It is only now, on the way back from her funeral, that I have been able to take a moment to gather my thoughts and share them with you.
These two events, the loss of many lives due to the act of an evil, anti-Semitic madman, and the loss of one, a victim of a disease that cancer keeps winning despite medicine’s valiant declarations of war, are both incomprehensible and challenge our faith. How does one explain to their children how a person can arm himself with weapons, walk into a holy space and open fire with the intent of murdering as many people as possible? And how does one answer children when they ask why God would make their beloved teacher suffer from illness and pass away at such a young age?
In a remarkable display of courage and conviction, Rabbi Grajower prefaced his eulogy by stating unequivocally that firstly, we work for God, He doesn’t work for us. And secondly, he assured us it is alright to be filled with so much pain that we can’t feel closeness to Hashem. Struggling to understand is not the same as struggling to believe.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that it is no coincidence that the words Aveil and aval are closely related. An Aveil, a mourner, feels a profound sense of aval – “however,” “but,” as if to say things are different and will never again be the same.
To a degree, whether it is connecting with the global Jewish community mourning the victims of Pittsburgh, or the family, friends and our local community grieving with the Grajower and Epstein families, we can’t help but feel aval, things are different, they will never be the same.
So what will we do about that? There are few things sadder than tearing keriah on a young boy and watching him say kaddish for the loss of his mother. If this is a cliché it’s because it is completely true: this week, we need to hug our children a little tighter, love our spouses a little deeper, and generally work to recognize the blessings in our lives with at least a little more gratitude and appreciation.
When tragedy strikes, Rabbi Soloveitchik calls us to not ask, lamah, why, but le’mah, for what, what will we do now? Certainly we pause to grieve, mourn and stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, but that is not enough. This atrocity demands a greater response.
The brutal murder in Pittsburgh is a harsh wake-up call and reminder that as much as things change, they remain the same. Anti-Semitism is as old as the Jewish people and while we can be lulled into a false sense of security and acceptance, we must always remain vigilant and proactive in confronting our enemies and defending our people.
Historian Robert Wistrich calls anti-Semitism “the longest hatred.” The recent surge of anti-Semitism hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It has grown in a climate of rhetoric, vitriol and demonization. We must all take extreme ownership over lowering the temperature, being more careful with our words, and holding those filled with hate, discrimination or racism accountable.
In the Hagaddah we declare, b’chol dor va’dor omdim aleinu l’chaloseinu, in each generation they rise against us to exterminate us. We continue, she’lo echad bilvad amad aleiynu l’chaloseinu, which we normally translate as, it is not only one who stands against us. The Sefas Emes suggests an alternative reading. She’lo echad bilvad, when we simply are not united, when we are divided ourselves, omdim aleinu, that is enough to fuel our enemies to stand against us and makes us vulnerable to their nefarious plans.
This week, we mourn and we grieve, but we also resolve to both fight hatred against our people and to purge hatred from within our people. We participated in two community-wide events, memorials to the victims, the Jewish martyrs who died al Kiddush Hashem. We pray that the people of Pittsburgh find the strength to endure, feel the love of the Jewish community, and good people everywhere and that the world’s oldest hatred finally come to an end.
The name of the Congregation in which the tragedy occurred is Tree of Life, Eitz Chaim. We are told la’machazikim bah, the Torah is a tree of life for those who grab onto it. Dannie z”l grabbed onto the Torah, Hashem and her faith and it carried her through hard times. We too must grab the Tree of Life, our tradition and the Tree of Life, the congregation, to lift one another during these times.