On empathy, tragedy, and the eleven victims of the Pittsburgh shooting

10.28.18

Reading the obituaries of the 11 murdered victims in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and all I can keep thinking about is how these people sound so familiar.

Richard Gottfried was a dentist around my parents’ age. He ran a 10km race every year. He also had a nephew in BBYO, the same youth organization I belonged to as a teenager.

Joyce Feinberg was Canadian, from Toronto. Her late husband was a statistics professor at Carnegie Mellon. She, like so many members of Montreal’s Jewish community, became more involved in the shul after her husband’s passing.

Daniel Stein, a new grandfather and past president of the shul, shared my last name. No relation to me as far as I know, but then again, who knows? I look at the photo of him and think, he looks not unlike my father, my uncle, my family. He wasn’t related to me. But he could have been.

Melvin Wax was an accountant, just like my father and grandfather. A family friend described how he used to do the taxes for his daughters for free, as a favour, just like they did / do.

These victims are not statistics. They feel as real to me as people just like them who I’ve known all my life.

I’ve seen other friends talk about how close to home this has hit them, more than other horrible mass shootings or even similar hate crimes that have targeted other groups in the past months and years. And I admit, I feel that way too.

And then I feel guilty for feeling that way, because every life is as valuable as the next. I don’t live in Pittsburgh and I didn’t know any of the victims. Why am I more affected by this than I was by shootings in an African-American church, in a Quebec mosque, in a gay nightclub, in a daycare centre? Those were horrific crimes too. And they obviously upset me.

And yet, somehow, this feels different. More personal. This feels like someone was targeting my people, my family, my community. We Jews — religious or secular, Orthodox or Conservative or Reform, practising or not — are all connected in this inextricable way where we feel an attack on any of us like a punch to the gut. Because I keep thinking, that could just as easily have been my community on a shabbat morning, on a High Holiday service. My friends, my neighbours. My people. And because I feel like this wasn’t an isolated incident, but a signpost in a rising tide of hate and insecurity that we as Jews are facing with this global wave of fascism. Because this threat isn’t something in a history textbook or a story told by our grandparents’ generation, but is very real and very present.

And then I wonder, if every community mourns in isolation from one another, how will we ever truly connect? How can we unite in the face of this global wave of hatred, racism and fascism? Because we’re gonna need to. None of us can do it on our own. We don’t have enough strength as individual groups. We need each other.

And how exactly is that going to work if we can only seem to emotionally connect on this level with an attack on our own people?

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