Beth Kissileff was not in the shul that Shabbat morning.
Her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, led services at New Light Congregation, a small conservative community housed in the Tree of Life synagogue in the traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh.
Dr. Kissileff, who grew up in Teaneck, where her parents, Karen and Dr. Harry Kissileff still live, and where she was an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom, went on to earn a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania. she had planned to meet him later that day, it was October 27, 2018, but she was enjoying the luxury of a leisurely breakfast first.
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We all know what happened that day. One killer, fueled by anti-Semitic rage he channeled through the weapons he carried — an AR-15 and three Glock semiautomatic pistols — killed 11 people and wounded six more.
Rabbi Perlman was lucky. He was not among those victims. But the trauma of that morning, the worst massacre of Jews in the United States, persists.
Dr. Kissileff edited a book, “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” which was published in 2020. She and her husband were among the essayists whose work is included there.
“Bound in the Bond of Life” will be reissued in paperback in October, close to the anniversary of the attacks. That makes talking about the book timely, as does the rise in mass murders with assault rifles, particularly the recent massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, and the Supreme Court’s erosion of the state’s gun safety laws. of New York when he repealed the state’s Sullivan Act of 1911. That law had made it necessary for people who wanted to carry concealed weapons to have a license to do so; That is no longer the case.
“This is retraumatizing,” Dr. Kissileff said. “Every time it happens,” every time, I mean, when there’s another mass shooting, “it’s retraumatizing for me and my family. We know the impact it’s going to have on those families, and on the individuals and families trying to help them, and on the concentric circles of the community at large. It’s a terrible mental health trauma for people in America today, because of the fear of being in a public place.
“When you know that any public place can be a target, it’s terrifying.”
Once again, she tells the story of that morning, how her husband “was very lucky, because he was in the basement of the building” where his congregation was meeting, “and he heard a noise. He said: ‘I had never heard a gunshot before in my life, but when I heard it I knew what it was.’
“He had the three people who were at the front of the room hide in a storage space, a large, open, completely dark space.” He knows about that room, even though the shul rented the basement of the Tree of Life only a few months before, because he needed a storage space during the last Holy Days, the first (and only) in that building, so I had done a bit of exploring.
“But there were two other people who were at the back of the room, in the kitchen, and they didn’t have time to hide. So they were killed.
“One of the people who hid with my husband, Mel Wax, was 87 years old and hard of hearing, so we don’t know if he didn’t hear what was going on or if he didn’t understand. His family said that he would never have thought that someone would threaten him. So he left, and they shot him.” And he died.
“My husband and the other two lived,” Dr. Kissileff continued. “My husband was extremely lucky. It was a large, dark room, but he was able to grope his way up the stairs and out through a door at the back of the synagogue. He didn’t take the other two with him, because he didn’t know if he would make it out.
“He did. And a police officer yelled at him to get out of there, so he walked home,” about 15 minutes away. Because the community had been alerted to the presence of an active shooter, everyone stayed put. in their homes, so Rabbi Perlman walked eerily empty streets.
“There is not only the physical impact of a shooting, but also the mental health aspect,” said Dr. Kissileff. “A year after the shooting, he would see people and ask how they were doing, and they would say things like ‘I have stomach problems’ or ‘My 11-year-old son had anxiety before and now it’s exacerbated.’
“My pediatrician, who is not Jewish, said, this was before covid, that wherever you go to a concert or any kind of big event, you immediately look for the exits. Everyone here is very conscious of how to get out” of any public place.
He has not returned to the Tree of Life building. “No one has used the place since it happened,” she said. The three congregations that used the space have found other rentals in other Jewish buildings.
Dr. Kissileff has strong feelings about gun reform. “I am disheartened by the Supreme Court ruling,” she said. “The fewer weapons the better, and they should be limited to some purpose, like hunting. People who don’t have a good reason to wear them shouldn’t.”
She believes it’s important to go after companies that make weapons and then market them by building and then exploiting the fears of gun buyers: “It’s a horrible way to make money,” she said, suing them and trying to regulate their activities.
However, victims and their advocates cannot sue any gun manufacturer because they do not have enough information. That’s because the killer hasn’t been tried yet.
That’s mainly because the death penalty is likely to be an option, should the killer be found guilty. It takes a long time to prepare for trial (covid didn’t help) and then if he is found guilty and sentenced to death there will be many years of appeals. Every time he returns to court, everyone is re-traumatized.
“My husband says ‘HaShem yakom damav’, that God will avenge the blood of the victims. For me, the idea is that we, as human beings, have no right to make those decisions. I think somehow God will avenge his blood.” It is a task for God, not for people, he explained.
There has been some hope that has emerged from the nightmare.
The synagogue had a relationship with the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church, which only deepened after the murders. On Martin Luther King Day in 2019, a delegation from the shul and the church went to Charleston, South Carolina, where they marched together in the parade, along with representatives from the city’s Jewish federation.
Dr. Kissileff, Rabbi Perlman and the other New Light representatives went to Mother Emmanuel Church, where in 2015 another 21-year-old hate-disturbed shooter had murdered nine worshipers, after sitting down to study the Bible. with them. That killer was sentenced to death in 2017; his appeals are still ongoing.
“The pastor told us, ‘Come up to the front,’ and we did, and everyone else came up to the front of the church and hugged us,” said Dr. Kissileff, with tears in her eyes as she recalled the intensity of that day. “A video guy who was there filming said, ‘I felt God’s presence that day.’
“Me too,” he added.
The experience deeply affected the entire family. Mrs. Kissileff and Rabbi Perlman have three daughters; all of them now advocate for gun safety.
Talking about the violence in her shul on Shabbat is still difficult for her, Dr. Kissileff said, but when she chooses to do so, “I can control the story. The book gave people the opportunity to tell their own stories in her own way. It is important to find out what the story is and how to tell it.
“For me, telling the story is trying to find a way to encourage people’s faith, to understand that part of the mystery is that we don’t know where God was that day. But we know that God cries with us. One way to honor the memory of people who have passed away is to encourage people’s faith.
“I have taught several people to read the haftarah,” he continued. “In part, that’s because the three people who were killed were our haftarah readers. But it’s also because I want to show that we can increase our faith, connect with it in new ways. We don’t want to let the shooter have the last word. We want to say that we are not afraid of being Jewish. That we want to learn more and do more and understand more.
“All the people who were killed died on Shabbat. They were living their lives as Jews, praying as Jews. I think in response it is important to continue to follow those values, to live as Jews, to value Shabbat, to pray, to study Torah, and to understand what it means to be part of the Jewish community. Any fear of continuing to live a Jewish life will give the shooter a win, and our goal is not to.
“HaShem yakom damav. God will avenge us by making it possible for us to continue living as Jews and to find meaning in living as Jews.”