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Interview

Tree of Life rabbi: ‘We can’t let evil win, and it won’t go away on its own’

3 years after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that claimed 11 lives, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers speaks about grieving, life after the tragedy and serving as an example to the world

  • Rabbi Jeffrey Myers gives the invocation on the first day of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
    Rabbi Jeffrey Myers gives the invocation on the first day of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
  • Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, center, of the Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation, is comforted after saying a prayer for the souls of the deceased during the one-year commemoration of the Tree of Life synagogue attack, at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum,  October 27, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
    Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, center, of the Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation, is comforted after saying a prayer for the souls of the deceased during the one-year commemoration of the Tree of Life synagogue attack, at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, October 27, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
  • Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
    Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
  • Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, center, his son Aaron, left, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto gather outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh for a moment of silence on October 27, 2020, the second anniversary of the shooting at the synagogue, that killed 11 worshipers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
    Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, center, his son Aaron, left, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto gather outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh for a moment of silence on October 27, 2020, the second anniversary of the shooting at the synagogue, that killed 11 worshipers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
  • Rabbi Jeffrey Myers gives the invocation on the first day of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
    Rabbi Jeffrey Myers gives the invocation on the first day of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
  • Exterior of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, 2020. (Danielle Ziri)
    Exterior of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, 2020. (Danielle Ziri)
  • US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, place stones and flowers on a memorial as they pay their respects at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
    US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, place stones and flowers on a memorial as they pay their respects at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
  • A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded six at the Tree Of Life synagogue, on October 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)
    A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded six at the Tree Of Life synagogue, on October 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)
  • Stars of David with names of those killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, at a memorial outside the synagogue, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
    Stars of David with names of those killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, at a memorial outside the synagogue, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
  • People light candles as they gather for a vigil in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Saturday, October 27, 2018. (AP/Matt Rourke)
    People light candles as they gather for a vigil in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Saturday, October 27, 2018. (AP/Matt Rourke)
  • Police respond to an active shooter situation at the Tree of Life synagogue on Wildins Avenue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, October 27, 2018. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
    Police respond to an active shooter situation at the Tree of Life synagogue on Wildins Avenue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, October 27, 2018. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

NEW YORK — Three years after the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was leading services when the attack took place, wants his community to serve as a beacon of hope to the world.

“We cannot let evil win, but we can’t just sit back and expect that it’s going to just go away on its own,” he told The Times of Israel. “Every good, decent person must step forward and be able to say that it is not welcome.”

On October 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire in the sanctuary at Tree of Life, a synagogue that housed three congregations, during Sabbath morning services. Eleven people were killed in the attack, the deadliest that the American Jewish community has ever known. In the years following the shooting, antisemitic incidents continued to rise in the United States. Jews were killed in attacks at the Chabad of Poway in California, a kosher supermarket in Jersey City and a rabbi’s Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, in 2019 alone.

At the time of the shooting, the Newark, New Jersey-born Myers had only been serving as Tree of Life’s pulpit rabbi for a little over a year. But three decades of serving Jewish communities in Illinois, New Jersey, and upstate New York as a Jewish educator and cantor prepared Myers for his public role following the tragic attack. Myers has served as a spokesman for his community, addressing Congress, speaking to the media and hosting the many high-level politicians — including former US president Donald Trump — who made the pilgrimage to Pittsburgh to pay their respects to the victims.

At the same time, he has ministered to his flock, helping congregants in matters of grief and faith, all while grieving himself.

The commemoration period surrounding the anniversary of the shooting is a difficult time, Myers said. “It’s difficult to separate out that short period of remembrance from the rest of the year because once it’s done, you then try to pick up the pieces and move forward,” he said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers gives the invocation on the first day of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

Myers spoke to The Times Of Israel in a phone interview on Tuesday, a day ahead of the October 27 anniversary of the attack. While he was unable to speak about the day of the event itself as he is a witness in the assailant’s trial, which has not begun, Myers shared his feelings about antisemitism, grieving and life in the days and years after the deadly shooting. The following interview has been edited.

The Times of Israel: You had only been in Pittsburgh for a year when the attack occurred. When you arrived at Tree of Life in 2017, did you imagine that antisemitism would be something you’d have to deal with as a rabbi?

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers: No, but then again I didn’t feel that way in prior pulpits either. From time to time there would be an antisemitic event, but generally nothing I can recall that was of a violent nature that would be threatening the safety or security of people who would come to worship or gather for any reason. There would be rallies like the march through Skokie [a suburb of Chicago where a neo-Nazi group marched in 1978], a swastika painted or scribbled here and there. Those were part of the ordinary fabric of this quiet antisemitism that was far less public than it has become.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers gives the invocation on the first day of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh, October 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

As a rabbi, people turn to you for guidance. What was it like for you to help your congregants grieve while you were grieving yourself?

I would say that the normative things that one would expect a rabbi to do — those didn’t change, they continued on. We took a year to mourn and grieve. There was no playbook on how a synagogue responds to being attacked because it’s never occurred in the United States. It wasn’t like I could pick up the phone and talk to a fellow rabbi who could tell me what he or she did or read the thoughts of some other rabbi, because there wasn’t. It was uncharted territory. We as a community said Kaddish [the mourner’s prayer] for 11 months and took care of each other. That was what we felt was the most important thing to do first. Then little by little we began to explore all the questions of, “Now what?”

The eyes of the world were on Pittsburgh after the tragedy. I know you can’t yet speak of October 27, 2018, but how did the community deal with the days that followed?

I was really immensely surprised by the outpouring of love and support from Pittsburgh in particular. To a certain degree it was expected that there would be responses around the world, I knew that would occur. But I had only been living in Pittsburgh for one year at that point so I was just getting to know the community. Their response was far beyond what one could have ever expected, which taught me a lot about Pittsburgh. It also told me that this was not merely an attack upon a synagogue, this was an attack on all of Pittsburgh and everyone in Pittsburgh took it personally, grieved and mourned the loss of life. It was just incredible to watch and beautiful to experience, because it told me that we were not alone in our suffering, that there was an immense community out there of support. There still is — it didn’t disappear, it’s still there to this day.

Mourners, most of whom stood in the rain because of over crowdedness, attend a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh, on October 28, 2018. (Michael M. Santiago/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

People from other faith groups also showed up in solidarity. How have these relationships helped?

It opened doors that I’ve walked through and I have continued to work to craft relationships with other faith groups because we are all in this together. This is not merely an issue of just antisemitism but different minority groups are being targeted for a vast number of reasons. We are there to support each other as well as work together to eliminate this scourge of evil that wants to overtake us. One would have not expected that houses of worship of any faith would be attacked. Not only here in America but around the world — whether it was Charleston [South Carolina], or the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or the [First Baptist Church] in Texas. That’s just the United States alone. Now, you expand it to go around the world and you see more and more of that. It speaks to a serious illness in humanity that even our holy places are no longer free from people bringing this evil into it.

Buddhists pay their respects at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 29, 2018 (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

Can you share a few words about those who died in the attack on Tree of Life?

The people who show up early in synagogue are the really engaged, active, involved people. These were the people who arrive early. This was an attack upon the root and the heart of each of the three congregations [housed at Tree of Life] because these were some of the key people in each of the congregations. There is an irreplaceable aspect to those sorts of people. They come because of great devotion, great connection, a love of being Jewish. These were critically important people that you just can’t replace.

A woman stands at a memorial for the victims of a deadly shooting the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, on October 27, 2018. (SMIALOWSKI/AFP)

How have the past three years been for you and your congregants given the fact that the Tree of Life building has been closed, and when do you expect to be back?

We are still temporarily located at Rodef Shalom, a congregation about half a mile down the road. We can’t wait for the day we are ready to return to Tree of Life but we do not have a calendar on that yet. COVID-19 didn’t help because in the case of my congregation, they’ve now been displaced a second time: the first time they were displaced from Tree of Life and the second time, when we went into a virtual format, they were displaced after finally getting used to their temporary home. In my congregation many felt literally homeless and were traumatized in that regard.

The challenge is to demonstrate that community is not about the space; community is about the bonds we have with each other. If we can have community physically together, we can have community when we are physically apart.

We all severely miss our religious home. We would like to be there yesterday, but we also recognize that the necessary steps do take time, you have to do it right. That is our goal — to do it right so that when we do reopen, not only will the world be moved by the magnificent structure that Daniel Libeskind is designing, but by the response to evil that Tree of Life has shown the world, that we did not let it chase us out of our home. We are going to be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.

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