Celebrating Life: A Response to Pittsburgh

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor? [1]

 

When I got home from elementary school, I watched two shows on PBS. The first was Sesame Street; the second was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers always managed to capture my imagination with his insight and creativity. It’s very rare that I see a movie nowadays so I need to make it worth my time; when I was a “bachelor” for a week in August the first movie I saw was Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I knew I’d use it in a sermon but was unsure when. Today’s the day.

Last Saturday a man filled with hate, who used the social media site gab.com to spew his venom, walked into Congregation Tree of Life and murdered 11 people. The congregation is located in Squirrel Hill, a very Jewish area of Pittsburgh but also the neighborhood of Presbyterian Minister Fred (Mr.) Rogers. Unfortunately such an incident is the anathema of everything that Fred stood for; he used television as his ministry to bring children together, make them learn important life lessons such as kindness, patience and generosity. In the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Mr. Rogers is shown after the 9/11 attacks, and it mentioned that before his public address, he was ashen and wondered what difference it would make. Yet he gave his final message, saying “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder what Robert Bowers would have turned into if his parents and classmates told him “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder if he still would have acted like Amalek, going on a rampage and shooting the vulnerable and elderly congregants in the rear of the synagogue.

What would Fred Rogers say in light of this massacre in his hometown? No one will know-לא המתים יהללו יה. I cannot look to my childhood exemplar for guidance-I need to do this on my own.

This week we read the Torah portion Haye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The portion begins ויהיו חיי שרה, these are the days of the life of Sarah.[2] The funny thing is the portion begins with her death-why therefore does it say the days of her life? The answer I like best is that we are celebrating each and every day of every week of every month of every year of Sarah’s life; who she was and the impact she made in the world.

I will now share about the days of the lives of every victim who was shot down in cold blood by the Jew-hater Robert Bowers at Tree of Life and New Light Synagogues. I do this to celebrate who they were and all that they contributed during their length of years; though each was taken before his/her time.

These are the days of the life of Joyce Feinberg z”l, a former research specialist who had been married to a world famous statistician. As a world traveler, she could not imagine living anywhere outside of Pittsburgh. She was a worrier about other people’s needs, devoted to her family and to her belated husband Stephen z”l. Her memory is for blessing.[3]

These are the days of the life of Irving Younger z”l the shamas and schmoozer of Tree of Life who had been a small business owner and youth baseball coach. Irving would arrive early and stay late at synagogue. He was an usher, guiding people to a seat and handing them a prayerbook. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw this gunman walk into the room where the services were and his first thought was ‘Can I help this stranger get settled?’ — until he saw what the stranger was doing — because that’s the kind of thought that he would have,” said Barton Schachter, a past president of Tree of Life. His neshama should have an Aliya.[4]

These are the days of the lives of Bernice and Sylvan Simon z”l.  Sylvan Simon was a retired accountant with a good sense of humor. He was best friends with Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun, who would have been in synagogue sitting next to the Simons if his wife had not asked him to stay home. Bernice Simon was a former nurse. She loved classical music and devoted time to charitable work. The Simons were going to celebrate a family birthday after Shabbat services. תהי נשמתם צרורה בצרור החיים.[5]

These are the days of the lives of Cecil and David Rosenthal z”l. Two brothers, each with their own challenges, who greeted attendees of Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat with prayerbooks as well as at weekday evening minyan at Beth Shalom. According to brother-in-law Michael Hirt, “David loved anything relating to the police or fire department.” Cecil was referred to as the “unofficial mayor of Squirrel Hill,” unafraid to go after what he wanted. He became a part of a Best Buddies chapter in 2005 when the organization shared a space with the disability services group Achieva, which helped and housed the Rosenthal brothers.” The brothers were inseparable, always together. Their memories are for blessing.[6]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz z”l. This man never stopped smiling, and was believed by those who knew him to be a malakh, an angel. He compassionately took care of those who suffered during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. He was always present and smiling at whatever he was doing, even when filling the Dixie cups with grape juice. יהי זכרונו ברוך[7]

These are the days of the life of Daniel Stein z”l, a member of New Light Synagogue. A man who recently became a grandfather, Daniel had recently retired and worked at a funeral home and as a substitute teacher. He picked up his grandson from daycare each and every day, this simple gesture giving him the joy he needed. He will not be forgotten.[8]

These are the days of the life of Rose Malinger z”l, a 97 year old woman was a stalwart, attending services each and every Saturday. Her family reports that she retained her sharp wit, humor and intelligence until the very last day. Tree of Life Congregation was “her place to be social, to be active and to meet family and friends.” Her 61 year old daughter Andrea was wounded in the attack. We will remember her.[9]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Richard Gotfried z”l. Rich was a dentist who tried to ‘Heal the World’ with work treating immigrants and refugees at a health clinic. He was a father figure to many on his staff, and he truly engaged in tikun olam, repairing the world on a daily basis. His soul will rise higher and higher.[10]

These are the days of the life of Melvin Wax z”l. Melvin knew so much yiddishkeit and was the default lay service leader at Tree of Life. He often did bikur holim, visiting ill people in the congregation. His soul is bound up in the bond of life.[11]

Please Rise-God, Healer of the Broken Hearted, we turn to you at this moment of grief. We ask in Your mercy that those massacred in Pittsburgh, who came to synagogue to worship You, that they not have been murdered in vain. May we never forget their example, the devotion they gave to their congregational home, the love and kindness they demonstrated in how they lived their lives. Let their example inspire us to be vigilant, not jaded; active, not silent; focused, not distracted; strong, not weak. May those of us who showed up special for this Shabbat continue to honor us with your presence, recognizing that regardless of our beliefs, each of us is grateful to be alive and to be able to call the Jericho Jewish Center our spiritual home. May we remember these 11 righteous and pure souls not in how they were murdered but rather in how they lived. In your almighty name we pray, Amen.

[1] “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Fred Rogers

[2] Genesis 23:1

[3] https://nypost.com/2018/10/31/the-light-refuses-to-be-dimmed-family-honors-synagogue-shooting-victim/

[4] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/10/28/Pittsburgh-Squirrel-Hill-mass-shooting-victim-Irving-Younger-Allderdice-school/stories/201810280226

[5] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/10/28/Bernice-and-Sylvan-Simon-a-married-couple-from-Wilkinsburg-synagogue-shooting-victims-squirrel-hill/stories/201810280231

[6] http://time.com/5439625/cecil-david-rosenthal-pittsburgh-service/

[7] https://nypost.com/2018/10/30/renowned-aids-doctor-killed-in-synagogue-shooting-laid-to-rest/

[8] https://nypost.com/2018/10/28/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victim-just-became-a-grandpa/

[9] http://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2018/10/28/tree-of-life-mass-shooting-pittsburgh-victim-rose-mallinger-daughter-andrea-wedner/stories/201810280202

[10] http://time.com/5437946/richard-gottfried-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting/

[11] https://abcnews.go.com/US/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victims-joyce-fienberg-melvin-wax/story?id=58872459

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