My husband survived the Tree of Life shooting. The Texas synagogue attack reopened our wounds
I found out that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three others had been taken hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex. when many other observant Jews did: after the end of Shabbat.
There was a knock on our door. It was someone from the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a grant-funded organization that provides resources and support to those impacted by the Tree of Life attack.
My spouse, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, is a leader of New Light Congregation, one of three congregations that shared the Tree of Life space. He was able to hide others and then escape the building himself on Oct. 27, 2018, when our congregants and friends were massacred during Shabbat services. I was fortunate that Jon walked home that day, safe, to inform my daughter and I what had happened to him.
When someone comes to the rabbi’s house on Shabbat to deliver news directly, it is usually not good news. This week, I was shocked to hear about the then still-unfolding situation in Texas, but appreciative that a kind and professionally- trained person had come to help me process the news. Whenever another antisemitic attack in a synagogue occurs, feelings of trauma, shock, distress, fear and anxiety all flood back quite readily.
Because I had been warned about the images I might see, I did not look at the news until after the hostages had escaped their captors, when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who had the presence of mind and bravery to make sure the other two worshippers still inside the temple were ready to run, threw a chair at the captor and escaped. Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s unsurpassable courage saved his fellow hostages’ lives as well as his own.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker told a Forward reporter that security workshops had instilled in him the ability to “do whatever you have to do to get out.” I also believe that part of Cytron-Walker’s composure derives from his experience as a rabbi and his knowledge of Jewish wisdom.
In a parable described in the Talmud in Berachot 51a, the Rabbis instruct anyone who encounters the angel of death to flee, whether that requires jumping over a river, taking a different path, or hiding behind a wall. The message is to do anything necessary to elude the angel of death’s evil machinations.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker clearly absorbed the message of this passage — and his own teaching for that particular Shabbat morning service must have steeled him as well.
Years of being a rabbi’s spouse led me to guess, correctly, that Rabbi Cytron-Walker had prepared a source sheet for that day’s service. I found the source sheet, which the rabbi had uploaded but did not get to use, on Sefaria.org; it detailed his concerns over increasing polarization and hate crimes in this country.
This need for a lifesaving impulse is not new for Jews. Today, as at the time of the events of the Exodus, being a Jew is being vulnerable.
My husband left last night, as he does each evening since his mother’s death, to say kaddish for her. The Orthodox synagogue where he prays during the week is always locked; it opens with a combination whose code is made known only to members. The times of services are never posted publicly and are only available through emailed newsletters.
All the synagogues in Squirrel Hill have locks or guards, and all the Jewish institutions have had security evaluations. After the attack, we recommended that other communities do so as well.
Despite the trauma of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, none of us in our family have had hesitations about attending any synagogue recently, so long as there is appropriate security, and currently, both mask and vaccine requirements. We haven’t gone back to the building where the attack happened, but the plans for its rehabilitation as a worship space are in place. At our new synagogue home, there are professional security guards, an updated security system and synagogue member greeters alongside guards.
Even so, we are always alert to any unexpected noises and startle when we hear an ambulance or police siren. And yet, all of the survivors of the attack on New Light, as well as family members of the victims, attend regularly.
It is not that I have total faith in the security that keeps me returning week after week, but that we as a family believe attending synagogue is the best embodiment of joining with a community of shared values to pray and study Torah.
It will not be easy for Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his community to recover from the trauma he and the other hostages have experienced. They will need help and support.
After the Tree of Life shooting, four men who had survived a shooting in their mosque in Quebec City drove 12 hours to Pittsburgh each way to speak with those of us from the three Tree of Life congregations. This was only the first of many acts of solidarity we have experienced since the shooting.
To sit in a room with people have the same concerns after an act of violence in their worship space and have them explain to us how they helped their children and community cope with the fear that came from going back to the mosque, when I was also worried about how to help my daughters and community, was powerful and meaningful. The human connection that was made with strangers who cared enough to make a huge effort to travel so far in order to render assistance was immensely healing and therapeutic. I am pleased to see the powerful interfaith solidarity shown for the Colleyville Jewish community after this terrifying antisemitic attack. I hope there will be some form of agency set up in Colleyville to enable those both directly and indirectly impacted by the trauma of this event to heal, and that no one will feel ashamed to ask for help.
Having experienced firsthand this particular type of trauma, I know that healing is possible. The Torah portion not read in Colleyville last Shabbat contains the verse, “for I the Lord will heal you” (Exodus 15:26). I am hopeful that Rabbi Cytron-Walker will continue to teach many messages of Torah, including this one, over the long years ahead.
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