Pittsburgh area rabbis face a formidable task in preparing their High Holiday sermons this year, working to craft words of inspiration for the future while also addressing the spiritual and emotional challenges following the most violent anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
The Oct. 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue massacre occurred at the Tree of Life building in the heart of Squirrel Hill, but its horror reached the whole of Western Pennsylvania Jewry, and beyond.
“You can’t not address it,” said Rabbi Yaier Lehrer, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Cheswick. “I don’t believe it is possible to not address what has been such a history-altering event in the community. It is an earth-shattering, earthquake-type event and there is no way to avoid it. People are thinking about it, and when you are speaking to people on the High Holidays, you need to talk to them about what they are experiencing.”
Anxieties could be especially acute for those who have not attended synagogue since the High Holidays last year, he noted.
“The pain of loss, the shock to the internal security we had in our hearts that we were all safe and sound — those are all things that people are thinking about,” he said.
Lehrer intends to speak about “the power of hate and also, at the same time, the power of love, because you can’t just talk about the power of hate without talking about the power of love. Those are countervailing forces. The power of hate is what caused what happened, but the power of love hopefully will bring some measure of healing, or has brought some measure of healing to some folks who probably will never fully heal.”
The rabbi also will be sharing insights on what can be done in response to the massacre, including how best to honor the memories of those who were murdered, and how to address security issues.
Also, “how will we bring our community together and make it stronger so that we can defeat the hate that brought that about in the first place?” he asked. “Because we have to be strong, we have to redouble our efforts to strengthen our community so that the hate doesn’t prevail.”
Although Cheswick is 14 miles from Squirrel Hill, “our congregation, I think emotionally, certainly had the same reaction that any other congregation had to the massacre,” Lehrer said. “We were cut to the core. And our hearts went out to everybody who suffers and continues to suffer and we were shaken, we were shaken in a way we never thought we could be.”
At Temple David in Monroeville, Rabbi Barbara Symons also will be addressing the massacre of Oct. 27 in her sermons, but the subject of the anti-Semitic attack and its aftermath will be interwoven throughout the High Holidays, including in the tenor of language she will be using and within a special memorial during the Yiskor service.
Symons has seen a heightened level of concern, and awareness, within her congregation since the massacre, she said.
“I’ve heard the challenge of safety, including from someone who converted, if this is the right place for her,” Symons said. “And including a therapist who is trying to figure out how to professionally respond to a client who is saying anti-Semitic things based on the event. There have been many examples of that kind of eye-opening and repositioning, I would call it.”
In her sermons, she plans to “address the clear rise in anti-Semitism and what our responses need to be.”
Jews can, and should, take lessons from their past, she said.
“I think we need to know that, per Jewish history, both in the last century and before, as much as we might feel this is something new, it isn’t,” Symons said. “And if we are going to really enact the words ‘never forget,’ then we really have to enact them. Lip service isn’t enough anymore and being isolated to action within the Jewish community isn’t enough either.”
Building alliances and relationships with the interfaith community is crucial, she said, as is education.
“And I think we need to not allow incidents to go by, whether it is an off-color joke that possibly is just out of naiveté or whether it is something fully intentioned,” Symons added. “We can’t just sit by because that is not what ‘never again’ means.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi of Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, will be addressing “the communal need for healing,” although the Pittsburgh synagogue attack of Oct. 27 will not be the primary theme of his sermon cycle.
In referencing the massacre that occurred just blocks from his own synagogue, Adelson will talk about “reestablishing our sanctuaries as spiritually safe, sacred spaces.”
“I want for people to feel they can come to synagogue and not be afraid to gather with their people in our sanctuary and do what we as Jews have always done on these days and not be troubled by fear,” he said. “I hope to offer words of comfort that will make us feel like we can worship and be together in peace and security.”
Adelson is concerned about the emotional state of many in Jewish Pittsburgh, he said.
“I think that the anxiety level in the community is unusually high and that has expressed itself in many different ways,” he said.
But robust engagement in Jewish life, its teachings and traditions, could help provide an antidote to the angst.
“I try to emphasize in my sermons and teachings that God is an ongoing source of good in our lives and an inspiration to reach out to others and to do good works, now in the present,” Adelson said. “And I feel that by engaging with our tradition, living a Jewish life, and digging deeply into the meaning of our sources, our holy texts and what they teach us today, that we have the opportunity to change the world for the better and to make this a healthier, safer world for everybody.
“Let’s hope that 5780 is a better year,” he added.
Rabbi Yisroel Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, also will be addressing the Oct. 27 massacre, but the focus of his sermons will be “about the positive strength that we need to find in this situation, and in all situations throughout the year, when we experience such horrible things, and seeing how we can as individuals and as a community come together to create more positive environments,” he said.
It is important, he stressed, to “reach out to other people.”
“A lot of times we get caught up with ourselves, not realizing there are other people around us in the community that can use help, that can use a hand that get overlooked,” he said.
He suggests engaging in positive actions, and that each person choose a mitzvah to “increase and do better on” this year.
Although he has seen a heightened concern with security among Jews in Pittsburgh, he stressed there has not been a decrease in community involvement.
“On the contrary, if anything, we’ve seen more people getting involved than less people,” he said, although they “are definitely comforted that we are taking security seriously.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at