Mourners gather after a vigil on Saturday evening in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood near the Tree of Life Synagogue. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Justin Merriman

Growing Up In the Tree Of Life Community Made Me A Better Jew

The whole world this week – from Australia and Japan to Canada, Los Angeles, England and Israel – mourns the anti-semitic violence this Shabbat in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, at the Congregation Tree of Life – so, who am I to speak up?

I am speaking up because I am the Jew I am today because of Tree of Life, the person I am today because of Pittsburgh, and the friend I am today because of Dan Stein.

Three times every week, after school and on Sundays, I attended Hebrew school at Tree of Life. During 6th grade, I spent every Shabbat there at friends’ b’not mitvah, including my own.

We owned the hallways. We owned the bathrooms. We outdid our friends with bar and bat mitzvah decor and the slogans on souvenir t-shirts and mugs. Adam Cohen, in my own opinion, was deemed the winner – his baseball themed party with t-shirt and boxers branded “I was the SHORTS-TOP at Adam’s bar mitzvah” has lasted until today, reminding me of many fun Tree of Life moments, like the giant chocolate chip cookies they provided during Hebrew school break, complimented by eraser hockey in the foyer, walking to the local grocery for giant pickles and taking hours to savor them, learning Hebrew grammar and the words “shulchan” and “eeparon,”  cutting class to be cool, sneaking bites of food while the teacher wasn’t looking, singing from the bimah, being congratulated for a job well done after reading the haftarah at my bat mitzvah, and making best friends.

Being a Tree of Life affiliated Jew meant being proud of my Jewish identity.  It meant being happy to say “I’m Jewish” and knowing that someday I would go to Israel.  It meant being part of the Jewish people, learning about Jewish history, standing at attention for sirens, celebrating in blue and white, and singing kiddish Friday night for my whole family, because I knew the prayer perfectly.

Being part of Tree of Life gave me such a strong identity that I yearned to be the “best Jew that I could.” It inspired me to spend six weeks in Israel while a teenager, to return for a year at Hebrew University, and eventually, to adopt greater observance and lead an Orthodox life.  My pride and strength as a committed Jew began at Tree of Life; my identity was forged by the caring and enthusiastic synagogue leaders and teachers, and by all the similarly committed families in my community.  Who we are today is built on the foundation of Judaism we gained from Tree of Life.

I am the person I am today because I am from Pittsburgh.  In the Orthodox community, I am among those who channel the Mr. Rogers philosophy, “It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like.” I’m a member of WhatsApp groups in several different hashkafic communities; I equally appreciate the assets of Passaic, NJ, Crown Heights, and even the Upper West Side, whose community hospitality rivals none.  In apartments the size of a closet, singles host meals for 40 people – and a new friend will not be turned away.  Litvish communities focus on Torah, Chabad communities focus on inspiration, and Modern Orthodox communities focus on Jewish history and world news.  Everyone is focused on their identity as Jews – everyone works on their character – everyone invites guests for Shabbat – everyone cares about Israel – everyone davens to the same G-d.   And this is Pittsburgh.

I am a product of the Pittsburgh Jewish community in my non-judgmental and open-minded approach to different types and strokes.  My family celebrated a characteristically Pittsburgh b’nei mitzvah.  Friday night was our families’ “unorthodox” Bat Mitzvah, and Shabbos day was my Lubavitch cousin’s traditional Bar Mitzvah, but we all celebrated together in one happy simcha that brought together family members, regardless of politics and views.  The Pittsburgh community is just like that.  The kollel and a Conservative shul are on the same street, a block from the Lubavitch yeshiva and the JCC.  We all shop at the same kosher grocery store, and we buy the “Shabbat Special,” so that even non-Orthodox families can enjoy matzoh ball soup and kugel like everyone else on Friday night.

The Jewish community of Pittsburgh is a microcosm of what might possibly be an evolved version of the entire people of Israel.  We are part of the same family.  We may have different views and different customs, but we don’t focus on those differences, we focus on what unites us, that we are all one family.  We support each other in happy and sad times, as seen seen through the posts and clips in the media. It isn’t a show, the unity and support among Jews in Pittsburgh is real.

My own confusion about “which hashkafa is best” comes from my upbringing in Pittsburgh – it really doesn’t matter!  What matters is to be kind and generous to others, to be respectful and caring, welcoming to new faces, and non-judgmental of differences.  Who I am as a person is because of the Pittsburgh community.

Last, I am only humbled by the greatness of the Jews who perished; they were clearly selected as martyrs for the Jewish nation in our age of relative freedom to be Jewish.  In the generations of Chanukah, Purim, the Inquisition, and the Shoah, all our lives were at stake.  But in this generation, it is a select few who represent the Jewish people in dying leshem shamayim: through coming on time to Shabbat morning services!  Not many can compare to them – and therefore not many are on their “level” – to be serving and davening to Hashem at the moment they perished – to be praised through the lips of every Jew in prayer – to be remembered forever.

This was fitting for someone like Dan Stein.   How so?  Dan Stein was the father of my friend, Leigh.  Leigh, like both her parents, was a supportive, caring, friendly, humble, modest, engaged, fun-loving person.  She wished the best to everyone, and never asked anything in return.  Their family might have written the lyrics to Jason Mraz’s song “Have It All.”

The Steins cared about others, but in a humble and unassuming manner. Leigh was simply the type of person you liked to have around.  Her parents gave her that. They taught their family the values of humility, support for others, and smiling.  How to be human, how to love, how to be a friend, these are lessons the Stein family could be called to teach in a TED Talk – the soft skills that may not be quantifiable, but are the building blocks for greatness of character.

Dan Stein, and the other martyrs who perished with him, were “the greats.”  They were those who taught us humility, diligence, responsibility, ethical behavior, and smiling.  They were the ones who remind us to attend shul on time.  They are the ones who, at the end of their lives, show the rest of the world how to live.