Hanukkah's theme of survival intensified after Tree of Life tragedy
The Hanukkah celebration is about light in the darkness — about believing in miracles and about Jewish survival — themes magnified in the time since an anti-Semitic man with hate in his heart and a semi-automatic rifle tore through a Squirrel Hill synagogue.
A public menorah lighting outside the Tree of Life on Sunday night, five weeks after the massacre, will hold particular significance for the community, Tree of Life vice president Alan Hausman said.
“It is a festival of lights, and we are the light moving forward,” he said.
The Oct. 27 shooting killed 11 congregants among the three congregations that called the synagogue home. To act as the light in the darkness, Hausman said, is to honor the lives lost.
“None of these people would want us to stop our lives,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but to honor them in that way … that’s what we’re going to do.”
Shloshim, a 30-day mourning period observed by Jews after a death, ended Nov. 27. Hausman said the end of shloshim marks a return to normal life.
“We’re going to attempt to go ahead and start moving forward,” he said.
Hanukkah traces to the second century B.C. and celebrates the rededication of the Temple by the Jewish army over the Syrians. In relighting the Temple menorah, oil that should have lasted one day lasted eight — thus, the eight-day Festival of Lights.
“Hanukkah is a celebration of religious freedom, and it’s a celebration of our ability to bring light into a dark place,” said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center.
Indeed, healing and comfort can be found in the origins of the holiday, particularly the daily lighting of the menorah, said Rabbi Stacy Petersohn of the Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.
“It’s a slow, conscious increase of light. It’s very reflective of how healing has to happen,” she said. “It’s a slow progress, but it’s always in a direction toward healing, toward completeness, toward wholeness.”
The lighting ritual starts at sundown and begins with the shamash, or lead candle, which is then used to light all the others. On the first eve, the shamash is used to light one candle. On the second eve, it is used to light two candles, and so on, for eight nights.
Sam Rubin, who owns Walkers Pet HoTail in Murrysville, said the synagogue massacre remains fresh in everyone’s mind.
“It’s a little less raw than in the immediate aftermath,” he said. “Everybody tries to come to grips with it in their own way.”
It was particularly front of mind for his family: His daughter, Malka, celebrated her bat mitzvah Nov. 17. Her 13th birthday, Nov. 9, was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night during which Nazis in Germany torched synagogues and smashed the windows of Jewish homes and businesses.
He said he spoke of the shooting at Malka’s bat mitzvah.
“Some people saw (the shooting) as an example of how things don’t change,” he said. Senseless hatred and violence is a human characteristic that has always been there and will always exist. This may be true, but you can’t forget how these two incidents are different.”
The people, he said, were the difference.
“In the 1930s, ordinary people didn’t stand up to the Nazis — many joined in with them,” Rubin said. “A month ago, ordinary people of all backgrounds took a stand against the violence and came together as a supportive community. So things are getting better.”
Adam Hertzman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh agreed that the celebration can and will be healing for the Jewish community.
“I’ve heard a lot of people in the Jewish community talking about how wonderful it is to have a festival of lights bringing light in a time of darkness,” he said.
That theme — light in the darkness — is key to Hanukkah and, really, is key to overcoming the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the country’s history. Attack, he said, and the community will come back stronger.
“It’s a message of triumph over people who would try to destroy the Jewish people,” he said. “One of the things that I’ve heard a lot from the Jewish community in Pittsburgh after this attack has been that we are not going to let one anti-Semitic act of terrorism define us — and that’s the message of Hanukkah. The Maccabees did not let an attack on the Jews define them.”
Staff writer Natasha Lindstrom contributed. Megan Guza and Stephen Huba are Tribune-Review staff writers. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.