Holzer: Your Light Still Burns

Together we stand stronger than hate.

by Emory Holzer | 11/8/18 2:20am

 It’s Saturday morning. The cool fog wraps itself around me as I throw open the North Fayerweather door. Carried across campus by the thought of breakfast food, I find myself in the middle of the Green. Gazing at the black mark surrounding me, I smile, filled with humility and pride for this community of which I am so lucky to be a part.

In a round Foco booth, I laugh with friends, recapping the events from the prior night. But like the Homecoming fire, my phone screen blares red hot: there has been a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. First is shock, then comes worry. My father is from Pittsburgh, my family lives there, we are Jewish. But there have to be many synagogues in Pittsburgh, I tell myself. Most likely, they are far from danger. I look further. The shooting is in Allegheny County; I start to sweat. The shooting is in Squirrel Hill. Leaving the dining hall, I call my father in a panic.

The bonfire’s aftermath suddenly takes a different tone. Memories of the bonfire contort into destruction. The scorched earth becomes a menacing blemish in my anguish. The cold air suffocates me. My chest burns with the fire of terror.

After three missed calls, my father finally dials me back. Desperately, I ask him if our family is safe. He has no consolation; he does not know. My aunt and uncle are not responding. Minutes pass like years. Every second, my dread builds. All the while, information pours from the media. The sparse details made public are cycled over and over and over. This is this an act of terror, they say. But this feels too personal. Terrorism impacts our country as a whole, terrorism is not supposed to be personally devastating.

Finally, my father calls me back. My aunt and uncle are okay. My relative, Rose Mallinger, is not.

A half-mile from their home, the Tree of Life Congregation is a part of my family’s community. The image plastered across TV screens is not from a faraway land. That is my father’s hometown. That is the neighborhood of my aunt and uncle, my cousins and great-aunt, my late grandfather.

Growing up in Highland Park, Illinois with, like Squirrel Hill, a predominantly Jewish population, I was surrounded by Jewish neighbors, Jewish teachers and Jewish friends. In seventh grade, every weekend had at least two Bar Mitzvahs. On Mondays, my public school served matzo ball soup and bagels for lunch. To me, being Jewish did not mean much. Because it was such a large part of our culture and lives, we never attached much significance to our religious identity. But I had the fortune of growing up isolated from anti-Semitism. Never did I think someone could dislike me because of my religion. Never did I think someone could use my religion against me. I have had the privilege of growing up in a culture where my Jewishness did not ostracize me but helped me blend in.

The thought that such terror could occur in a community like mine is harrowing: harrowing that such atrocities happen in the places we least expect, harrowing that such terrors happen in our homes. They menace community spaces where we are supposed to feel safe and accepted. The first shot on the morning of Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life Congregation forever altered synagogues in the United States. Never again can we pray without fear.

In trying times, it is easy to place blame. To attach a reasoning to these senseless acts of violence helps to make sense of the atrocity. Yet by doing this, we play into the hate that motivated the killer to storm the Tree of Life Congregation. We feed the animosity that spurs heinous crimes like these. But now is a time we must to come together. Both within the Jewish community and without, we must learn from those different than us. We must expose ourselves to diverse experiences in order to develop a shared humanity. Through understanding comes compassion. And it is compassion, not hate, that creates change, that makes sure crimes like these do not happen again.

In a couple of weeks, I will be back home for the first time since the shooting in Squirrel Hill. For the first time, I will walk around my hometown without feeling safe from anti-Semitism. For the first time, I will feel conscious of my religious identity at home. But I look forward to an embrace by the resiliency of my people despite our painful history. I know that no atrocity can silence us.

To my relative Rose: I wish I knew you better. You had such a long life. You showed so much strength. You were taken too soon. Rest in peace knowing your light was not extinguished on Oct. 27. Your legacy will live on in the hearts of people across the country who now know your name and mourn for your loss.