How has the Tree of Life shooting changed my life? One victim’s impact statement.

No matter what I do, I am constantly 'back into the shiva chair.'

This is a memorial inside the locked doors of the dormant landmark Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(RNS) — It’s kind of a ridiculous assignment: Use words to describe and contain the fear and anxiety that have engulfed me, my family, my synagogue, my entire Squirrel Hill neighborhood since a gunman unleashed his hatred on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Synagogue, blocks from my home, killing 11 Jews. Do this in such a way that a judge will be able to take your feelings into account when sentencing a defendant.

It can’t be done, honestly — there is no way to convey the overall tenor of my life, the feelings of sadness and despair that have overcome me and lead me to sob uncontrollably at times. I think about how my husband, a rabbi who was at Tree of Life that morning, might have died. Had the gunman come just a little bit later, my husband, my daughter and I could have all perished.

It is terrifying knowing how close we came to our family being wiped out. All three of us have anxiety and startle at any kind of loud noise. Wherever we go we look to see where the exit is and how we might flee and hide. My husband does not sleep well and frightens easily. Noises of all kinds can be alarming, even when they are wholly innocuous. How do I account for the hours of sleep my husband has lost, woken by dreams about being shot? How do I measure the impact of his disturbed sleep on me, when I wake to comfort him? Do I explain that his chronic back pain has worsened and makes many of his daily tasks more painful?

There is no way to pinpoint the extent of the damage of the shooting for him or me or our three children.

And this is all with the good fortune that my husband was able to hide during the shooting and ultimately flee the synagogue. Those three souls in our New Light congregation — one of three groups that met at Tree of Life — who were taken brutally from this world have left a sense of emptiness that has made our synagogue a different place than it was before the shooting. There have been so many times in synagogue since then that I have thought about each of them — Rich Gottfried, Dan Stein and Mel Wax. I’ve wished and wished they were present, giving out honors, singing the prayers, joking at the kiddush.

I have feelings of sadness and angst that just don’t go away. No matter what I do, I am constantly “being put back into the shiva chair.”

Nor is it just what I experienced. Gun violence has permeated every segment of life in this country. The losses we hear about almost daily feel personal to me even if they happen far away. I look at the photos of the victims and their bios and know there is so much more to them than the few paragraphs that are recounted. What did they mean to each of the family members? How many lives might they have touched had they been permitted to live to the full measure of their days?

For a while we tried to reach out to families with experiences similar to ours, touched by what others had done for us. There are too many now, and it is too overwhelming to know the empty feeling of families sitting without a loved one at every family event from the time of their loss, going forward. 

In his groundbreaking book “The Body Keeps the Score,” Bessel van der Kolk wrote, “The nature of trauma, is that you have no recollection of it as a story. The nature of traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created.”

Stones are placed on a table following a Commemoration Ceremony in Schenley Park, in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. It has been three years since a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in America's deadliest antisemitic attack. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Stones are placed on a table following a commemoration ceremony in Schenley Park, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In other words, events like the Tree of Life shooting cannot be neatly packaged and compartmentalized. On the day of the last of the three funerals for our members, I spotted on my lawn a piece of lightbulb that must have come out of my outdoor light along my driveway. I was certain it was a bomb and called the police to investigate, so fearful I was of even ordinary things.

This is an incredibly difficult obstacle for a writer. I was unable to write a full sentence or complete a thought for some time, taken up by a manic sensibility stemming from lack of sleep and generally heightened anxiety after the event.

At the shiva for Rich Gottfried, I learned that he, his twin sister and I have the same birthday. I told her I would share the day with her going forward: We could be birthday twins and celebrate together. 

We have gone to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens here in Pittsburgh, a place of color and vibrance and tropical warmth — wonderful in the middle of January when our birthday occurs — to walk around and have lunch. I am glad to do it, but the day inevitably tempers my celebration of my own time on Earth with sadness. 

Though this is a victim impact statement, I feel the need to point out that many more were affected than those officially identified as victims or survivors. The lingering impacts fall also on those in the vicinity who feel trauma from their proximity to the violence. The Washington Post has said that “10 to 20 percent of the surrounding populace will suffer a diagnosable traumatic response to a mass shooting.” That number may be up to as many as 5,600 people in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Recent research by the Urban Institute shows the economic hit a community takes after a mass shooting, and another study in Social Work Today shows that the impact of shootings is beyond numbers. A counselor with the Jewish Family and Children’s services in Squirrel Hill said of the impact on the community, “It may be adjacent or vicarious trauma, but it’s trauma nonetheless.”

And yet, the shooting makes me feel defiant. I refuse to let the shooter or anyone change my commitment to my faith or my understanding of the meaning and beauty inherent in the Jewish religion. I still find joy in the Sabbath each week and am so proud of those I have taught haftarah, prophetic chanting, so they may emulate those killed and participate in the Sabbath service in this way. For the first year after the shooting, though I could do no other writing, I wrote on the Torah portion of the week. It was more helpful than I realized to have an anchor and a scaffold in a text to contemplate and continue to find meaning in, though my life was so changed. 

The Talmud, in Shabbat 156b, says there is no constellation for Israel. What this means is that Judaism is predicated on the idea that nothing is fated, nothing is without the capacity to be changed.

The statement comes from a story of a bride who is told by astrologers she is destined to die on her wedding day. Yet on that day, the bride sticks her brooch in a wall after her wedding; it strikes and kills the snake that was about to transmit his poisonous venom to her. The bride’s father asks her why this happened: She fed a beggar at her wedding feast. Evil will always be present, yet good can counteract it, as there is never a decree that cannot be overturned. 

Though the 11 Jews who were murdered were not able to do the same — counteract the bullets aimed at them — the good they did in their lives, and inspired others to do, lives on. If good is done in response to the evil constantly encountered, perhaps some snakes will be killed (though fewer guns in this country and tougher gun reform laws are equally important).

There is still no constellation for Israel. No matter what our fate seems to be, our acts of charity and kindness overtake anything fated. Even those who have died physically live on when the good they did and inspired in others is publicized and remembered. The impact of the deaths of the martyrs I knew is clear: Defy the wishes of those who want to harm Jews who are praying and studying Torah on the Sabbath.

The past can never be changed, but my belief in the affirmation of the possibility of doing good, of strengthening ourselves and our connection to Judaism — that continues to be what “happened” to me that day and lives in me since. I will not let myself be seen as a victim, but rather as a person, one of many, continuing the legacy of good done by those who did not deserve to die for living as Jews.

(Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy.” This commentary is adapted from Kissileff’s victim’s statement that will be submitted to the court where the Tree of Life shooter is being tried. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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