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Matt Rosenberg: How the synagogue massacre affected my faith

Matt Rosenberg
| Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, 7:51 a.m.
A woman wipes tears from her eyes as she visits a memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. On Saturday, 11 people were shot and killed at the synagogue.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
A woman wipes tears from her eyes as she visits a memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. On Saturday, 11 people were shot and killed at the synagogue.

I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah.

I can count on two hands and a foot the number of times I’ve stepped into a temple.

I’ve memorized prayers, but I can’t read Hebrew.

But in the wake of the horrifying massacre at a Squirrel Hill synagogue that left 11 dead and six hurt, I realized that what I practice — or don’t practice — can’t erase what my heritage dictates.

I’m Jewish.

My family. My ancestors. Those who made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to build lives in Brooklyn and later on Long Island. Practicing Jews who sought to advance their beliefs within their family and carry on traditions for generations.

Sometimes, that falls apart.

I didn’t expect the Judaism side of this tragedy to affect me. Because it wasn’t that, at first.

In its infancy, this unspeakable horror was human, without religion attached. Lives, those of the Jewish faith or otherwise, were gravely affected.

But then, the stories. Worshippers in a synagogue. Holding true to their faith. Believers in something.

Prior to Oct. 27, I didn’t necessarily know what I believed in. To be honest, I still don’t.

But what I do know is I feel a sickness, one that goes beyond the human emotion of the loss of life, the effect on first responders, colleagues and the community.

The sickness is in knowing where my heritage is based and — perhaps — a guilt in not having honored that by practicing.

To be frank, I’ve “celebrated” more Christmases than any Jewish holiday in my life.

I eat potato pancakes. I enjoy matzo ball soup and brisket and bagels. I’m as modern-day, nonpracticing, stereotypical Jewish guy as you can get.

But what I realized in the wake of this tragedy is that religion doesn’t have to be about what you practice. It’s a connection you feel.

It’s knowing that your relatives generations before you held seders and lit menorahs in Europe in the 1800s.

It’s having attended Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services with your grandparents, even if you didn’t have a clear idea exactly what you were doing there.

It’s knowing that your grandfather said the same prayer every time before cutting the challah bread before major holidays, even if you didn’t know what he was saying.

It’s recognizing that you’ve heard the rabbi say a certain prayer before, even if you don’t have any idea what it means.

I’m just one man in Western Pennsylvania. One man with admittedly little personal investment in the religion that plays a significant role in my family’s history.

Which is why I can’t begin to comprehend the emotional toll this massacre has taken on me.

I took it personally. Moreso than I would ever have anticipated.

What I realized in the wake of this unthinkable horror is that religion is as much about what you feel as it is about what you practice.

And this week, 29-plus years after being born into a Jewish family without much practicing of the religion, I feel it more than I ever have.

I am hurt. It’s a hurt that I almost feel guilty for feeling. I wondered whether I was “allowed” to feel that way. And whether the Jewish community would balk at someone so removed from the religion identifying as such.

But this hurts deeper than I thought it could.

I am Jewish.

Matt Rosenberg is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Matt at or via Twitter @Matt_Rosenberg.

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