Greater Pittsburgh Jews hope High Holy Days foster healing from Tree of Life attack |

Greater Pittsburgh Jews hope High Holy Days foster healing from Tree of Life attack

Stephen Huba
A handmade Star of David hangs from a bush outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in November 2018.
Tribune-Review file
People leave flowers and other memorials outside Tree of Life congregation on Monday, Oct. 28, 2018, the day after a mass shooting left 11 people dead inside the Squirrel Hill synagogue.

Jews of Western Pennsylvania are hoping that Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, will help them make a fresh start nearly a year after the Tree of Life massacre.

The mass shooting doubtless will cast a shadow over the High Holy Days — a solemn time that normally is devoted to introspection, forgiveness and new beginnings, area rabbis say.

“We went through the worst anti-Semitic attack in our country’s history last year, so it would be beyond human comprehension to think that people would not be focused on the events of last year and its implications,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

The great themes of the High Holy Days — repentance, forgiveness, life and death — will carry extra resonance with Jews as they attend services, listen to sermons and think about those who lost their lives on Oct. 27, he said.

While the focus on death and life is apropos, the holidays transcend even horrific events and point the way to a better future, the rabbis say.

“Clearly part of the theme of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement focuses on the subject of life and death. It will raise again for so many of us what we experienced on that day,” Schiff said. “The sense of the liturgy and the message that comes through is very much that we have the power to replace evil behavior with good behavior. That’s our orientation as we observe (the High Holy Days).”

Rosh Hashana starts Sunday evening and ends Tuesday evening. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on Oct. 9 and is considered the holiest day of the Jewish year. The period between the holidays is known as the “Ten Days of Repentance,” or Aseret Y’mei Teshuva.

“The main themes (of Rosh Hashana) are on what we can do each day as individuals to improve our conduct to make society better and to start over with a fresh slate,” Schiff said. “While (the Tree of Life attack) will certainly be on our minds, we have additional internal responsibilities to take care of.”

Those responsibilities include “rebuilding our relationships with each other and returning to a sense of wholeness,” he said.

Schiff said rabbis likely will address issues raised by the Tree of Life attack in their sermons during the High Holy Days, but, otherwise, “the holidays are going to have their regular focus.”

Rabbi Leonard “Lenny” Sarko was serving at Congregation Achduth Vesholom (“Unity and Peace”) in Fort Wayne, Ind., at the time of the mass shooting. He now serves at Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.

Sarko said the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in Fort Wayne came together to show their solidarity with Pittsburgh and to express support for each other. They did so again five months later, when two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were attacked in a mass shooting.

Sarko said the attacks raise uncomfortable questions not only for Jews but also for religious believers.

“We’re living in a dangerous world now,” he said, “so how to balance safety and the protection of our people, while at the same time being welcoming and hospitable to people, becomes an issue.”

The High Holy Days are a natural time for such reflection, Sarko said.

“We certainly take stock of what happened at Tree of Life and take time out to pray for those who passed and their survivors, but also — how do we now adjust for ourselves, to protect ourselves while remaining open and hospitable?” he said.

Sarko arrived in Greensburg just in time for the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashana services at Congregation Emanu-El will begin at 10 a.m. Monday. The Tashlikh service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Twin Lakes Park.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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