And so, once again, shots rang out in a synagogue, worshipers were dispersed in horror, death was in the air where, moments earlier, blessings and chants had filled a sanctuary.
The sad truth is that in our age the word “sanctuary” has lost its meaning. And the sad truth — in the wake of this latest shooting — is that the phrase “Chabad of Poway” will have an entirely new meaning, just as the phrase “Tree of Life” no longer denotes a place of worship at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues in Pittsburgh, three blocks from my house, but a shooting rampage exactly six months ago that killed 11 congregants and horrified the world.
Chabad of Poway. Tree of Life. Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. The Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec City. The names of these sacred places and too many others have taken on tragic meaning because they are the sites of tragedies.
Today my Pittsburgh neighborhood remains scarred, with signs on every other lawn bellowing “No Place for Hate.” People walk past the kosher Dunkin’ Donuts in shirts with the famous Steelers logo altered to include a gold Star of David and the legend “Stronger than Hate.” The synagogue itself is boarded up, with no one quite sure whether it will be leveled, reopened or converted into housing for the elderly.
Right now Tree of Life, so massive a structure that it was home to three congregations, sits empty, a monument and memorial that, like all of us who pass by it on the way to the gym or the grocery store, remains a symbol of all the questions we have asked but have been unable to answer.
In these last six months, there have been vigils, multi-faith sessions, rallies, forums, examinations of the roots of hate, and, this being the age for such things, political recriminations. None of it — not the services, not the essays, not the memories, not even the declaration of community unity across faiths, always with a rabbi, a priest, a minister and an imam present — stopped the shooter in Poway.
There was standing room only in the massive Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and Museum in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh shortly after the synagogue shooting. The outpouring of sympathy, sadness and support gave some succor to a grieving community, to be sure. But it did not stop the Poway shooter.
For days Pittsburghers of all faiths, and then Americans of all regions, and finally people of all nations, strolled in silence along the sidewalks outside Tree of Life. One woman played the violin, its plaintive notes wafting across the street to the tents where television reporters recorded the quiet expressions of sadness and shame. The grassy partition in front of Tree of Life was choked with flowers, and then all of Wilkins Avenue was full of handmade memorials, some by children, some by adults, whose labors came with tears. But that did not stop the Poway shooter.
And throughout it all, the Heinz History Center, a few miles away, began collecting poems, tributes, news articles, sermons, photographs and drawings, all part of an effort to create an archive to ensure Tree of Life would not fade from memory. But all that curating and collecting did not stop the Poway shooter.
No communities are alike — just as no mass shootings are alike — but it is almost certain that men and women across faiths, across creeds, across California and across the nation will gather in the next several days the way we did in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t only a pilgrimage of Jews to the pews of synagogues that following Friday, filling row upon row. It was everybody, black and white and Latino and Arab and Asian.
In the Jewish faith the phrase “never again” has special meaning, linked as it is to the Holocaust and the death of 6 million. The leitmotif of those Pittsburgh gatherings was, quite plainly, “never again,” the phrase revived for a new era of disbelief. And yet it has happened again.
Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, not yet a senator from New York, tried to comfort Mary McGrory, not yet a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Both were devoted to the martyred president and overwhelmed with grief that they carried to their graves. At that moment she said to him that they would never laugh again. He said to her that they would laugh again, but that they would never be young again.
It is that kind of moment again, because the view from Pittsburgh, and soon from Poway, is that we are growing old with grief.
David Shribman, executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that this month was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.