How the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and Processing Grief Led Me to Heller High – and Changed My Life

October 19, 2023

I became bat mitzvah on October 27, 2018. It was both one of the best and worst days of my life. At the same time I was on the bima at my home congregation of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, a gunman at another community in Pittsburgh walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue and killed 11 Jewish people. It was the deadliest antisemitic hate crime in United States history. I was puzzled when I saw my mom exit the sanctuary in the middle of the service, but I was more focused on not tripping on the bima than anything else going on.

After the service, my dad told me what happened in Pittsburgh. I cried. I didn't understand how this could happen. I was scared and confused. That was the day my spiritual Jewish journey began, as opposed to my cultural Jewish journey - and not just because I became bat mitzvah.

I joined a Jewish youth group a year later and, for a while, I was really happy. I was planning Jewish programs and having fun with my friends. Then, at the end of my freshman year, my dad died. Temple became uncomfortable because all I could think of was my dad's funeral and the rabbis coming to my house to say blessings. To say that these are not fond memories would be an understatement. I didn't want to talk about my dad's death, especially with people who didn't know my dad.

When my dad was sick, I'd attended services where we'd be pulled up on the bima to say the misheberach prayer for healing. I didn't know if I believed in God anymore. All I knew was every time I walked into Temple during those two years my dad was sick, I felt sad.

Why would I want to be in a place that made me feel sad?

On the other hand, could I just discard my Jewish identity?

After questioning everything - not just Judaism - I decided the best thing for me was to get away. URJ Heller High would send me to Israel for four months. Although I had never been to Israel and felt disconnected from Judaism, I wanted to go. In the second semester of my sophomore year, I attended Heller High. Thank God I did, because it was the best four months of my life! I knew right away that I was connected to the land of Israel. I met my "forever" people and made my forever home.

I connected to the religious aspect of my Judaism when I was at a "Women of the Wall" (a group that fights for gender equality at the Western Wall) protest with my group. I remember walking through the women's section and turning around only to see a wall of ultra-Orthodox men holding signs that said, "Reform Jews are worse than Nazis!" They threw rocks at us, but we continued to pray. I ignored them and went up to the Western Wall. In that moment, I felt more connected to God than ever. From then on, I led every Shabbat service in my program. Everything was perfect. Then it was time to leave.

Going back to school in Greensboro was difficult. In Israel, I had complete freedom. I had classes with a maximum of six other students and was living with my best friends. Now, I was back at a public school with teachers who treated me like a child with maybe 10 other Jewish kids in the entire student population. I got good grades and tried hard, but the only thing I cared about was getting back to Israel.

In the spring of my junior year, I attended the International March of the Living through our congregation. Shortly after arriving in Poland, we traveled to Auschwitz. We all were in shock! Because I had spent four months in Israel and had studied the Holocaust, I thought I would be prepared. I was wrong. Nothing can prepare you. No picture, no book, and no lesson prepared me to stand where those horrors took place.

I cannot imagine what my life would be like today had I not gone to Heller High. It changed my life. Fighting antisemitism is now a huge part of my identity. I plan programs to raise awareness in my community. Sometimes, I think about my bat mitzvah and wonder how I would have reacted to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting if it had happened today. I think it would have hurt much more. Even though no one in Greensboro died on October 27, 2018, the shooting was an attack on the entire global Jewish community, and we all felt it.

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