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It’s The Jewish Day Of Mourning. But In Pittsburgh, We Never Stopped.

It’s the time of year that for one day, the ninth of Av, Jews think about being displaced and exiled. We think of what was lost with the destruction of two Temples, and our historical exile from Jerusalem.

This year, I am in the unenviable position of feeling this uprooted aspect of Jewish history in a much more keen way. My synagogue in Squirrel Hill, New Light, was destroyed because of baseless hatred. It was not that of a Jew for his fellow Jew — the kind of hatred the Talmud in Yoma 9b sees as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. My synagogue is no longer in use because a gunman with white supremacist ideas came in to kill Jews worshiping on the Sabbath. New Light rented space at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and three of our members were murdered on October 27, 2018.

How can we feel some semblance of control over a world of such random and unlikely evil?

I believe the way to control a scary situation over which we don’t have control or agency is to master and understand it by creating a narrative around it. It is the operating theory behind narrative based trauma therapy as well as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages people to create a narrative around a traumatic event, thus giving them control, and a way to process the event in retrospect.

Creating a narrative to help us organize our thoughts about catastrophe is what Tisha B’av, the holiday where the multiple calamities that have occurred throughout Jewish history, is about. By compressing and condensing to one specific day the many tragedies of Jewish history, from the bad report about the land from the spies in the book of Numbers (13:27-29) to the destruction of both the first and second temples to the expulsion from Spain, various Holocaust related cataclysms, and the AMIA bombing in Argentina in 1994, we are exerting a certain level of control over the narrative. This then influences how we experience these cataclysms.

In constructing the narrative, we are taking power over the situation. We are the ones controlling the flow of information — how much hits us and when, as we rarely are in this world where more shootings occur every day.

Having a day to organize one’s feelings about tragedy is, in my mind, part of the healing. Despite all that has happened, the mere fact that Jews are able to gather, fearful as we may be and dangerous as it is, to narrate our history and mourn together, is a way to mend. Believing that someone else can control one’s faith — can even “steal” it — is not.

In fact, allowing the actions of others, like a white supremacist gunman, to destroy us is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. The concept of hillul Hashem, defaming the name of God, infers that one is giving power to sources other than a divine one.

In writing about one of the psalms of lament, the kinot that we read on Tisha B’Av, the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “In reality, the name of God cannot be desecrated by human beings regardless of how powerful they may be. His name could not be profaned by Rome, or Babylonia, or by any other power in the world.”

Judaism and the lessons of our history are more powerful than any gunman, no matter what kind of weapon he has.

I won’t cede control of my faith or anything else to others. If someone wants to destroy Jewish lives or faith, I want to defy that person. My response to a person who wants to destroy me personally and my religion is to work harder at finding ways to retain my faith. I hope others will join me in defying those who wish to destroy us, not ceding power — over our faith or anything else — to them.

Beth Kissileff is a Pittsburgh-based journalist and writer. She is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of “Reading Genesis: Beginnings” and “Reading Exodus: Journeys” (forthcoming 2020). Visit her online.

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