My name is Ariel Stein, and I am a proud member of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Today I have no words. I am in mourning along with the entire Pittsburgh community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It is often hard to find the words in a situation that hits so close to home. As a young Jewish girl, I grew up going to the Tree of Life Congregation sitting alongside my Bubbe, sister, father, aunts, uncles and cousins — all of whom were either married or bar/bat mitzvahed at Tree of Life. On Yom Kippur, I looked forward to praying alongside my father — praying to be sealed in the Book of Life.
Tree of Life was a place where I connected with my Judaism. Two days ago, the same people who prayed to be sealed in the Book of Life were killed. These were people who represented the love in humanity, as they regularly prayed for peace, prayed for their families and prayed for a better world.
A year ago, I traveled to Auschwitz to learn about the stories of the Holocaust and, to most importantly, see Poland with my own eyes. My feet traveled across the train tracks, my shivering hands touched the walls of the barracks. But never would I fathom that my community would be subject to the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
Today, I am still grieving.
Pittsburgh is devastated, but we will refuse to be broken by hatred. Amid so much tragedy there is also so much love.
People say we can learn from tragedy, and I have to choose to believe that. We can learn to spread love over hate, to stand up for the other in society, to defend people’s religious freedom and to embrace people’s differences.
The name of the synagogue, Tree of Life, is derived from a verse in the Talmud that says the Torah is a “tree of life to those who cling to it.” The people in synagogue Saturday morning chose to exercise their religious freedom. They held the Tree of Life, which is the Torah, close to their hearts.
Historically, synagogues were unsafe. In the United States, we have not seen a manifestation of this form of violent anti-Semitism in quite some time, and never to this magnitude. Just as the Jewish people have chosen to express their religion, customs and values in the face of persecution throughout history, today is no different. We will choose life, more life, so much life.
Something that makes Squirrel Hill so precious to me is that on every storefront there is a sign — the sign states, “Welcome thy neighbor.” It states it in Hebrew, it states it in Arabic, it states it in Spanish. And although Squirrel Hill suffered the largest blow two days ago, I know that we will bounce back, and I hope that all communities can embody loving thy neighbor as well.