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A Pittsburgh Rebbetzin Reflects On This Week's Tragedy

A Pittsburgh Rebbetzin Reflects On This Week’s Tragedy


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This Shabbos morning began like any other. My husband gave the littlest kids their breakfast so that I could get a few extra minutes of sleep. After he left for shul, I got myself and the kids dressed, and we headed next door to our shul, PZ. The only excitement was that my oldest son went to the shul down the block, Shaarei Torah, for a good friend’s Bar Mitzvah. While my husband is the rabbi at PZ, so he couldn’t leave to attend the Bar Mitzvah, there was no reason that I couldn’t go. So we made plans that the kids would go to their regular Shabbos groups, and my husband would bring them to meet up with us for the Bar Mitzvah kiddush. My second grader decided that he wanted to come with me, so once we made sure that all the kids in PZ were safely and happily settled into their Shabbos groups, we walked over to Shaarei Torah.

As we approached Shaarei Torah, we noticed a few ambulances. I said a perek of Tehillim (chapter of Psalms), as I try to do whenever I see or hear an ambulance, and wondered idly about the power of prayer. What difference would my little Tefillah (prayer) make in the scheme of whatever personal tragedy was unfolding in somebody’s life? They would never know that I had thought of them, nor would I ever know what the ambulance was for. On this philosophical note, I walked up to the doors of Shaarei Torah, and found them, oddly, locked.

Somebody inside opened the door for us, and as the door shut behind us, they informed us that there was a shooting at Tree of Life, just a few blocks away, and that our shul was on lockdown.

My first concern was that I knew, that as of the moment that I left PZ, only 5 or so minutes before, nobody there knew that anything was amiss. I decided that the news would arrive there in some way, just as it had to Shaarei Torah, and the best thing that I could do was follow instructions, and daven. My son had run ahead to find his friends in groups at Shaarei Torah, and as he entered they locked the doors-the kids were locked into their rooms, for their safety, for the duration of their lockdown.

The hour or so that ensued was surreal. The backdrop to our davening was the nonstop sound of sirens. While the bar mitzvah boy was heroic and did not miss a beat, I struggled to stay in the moment, and focus on the pride and nachas that I was feeling, not to mention the words of our Tefillos. Those feelings battled it out with many other strong emotions. There was, of course, the anxiety for those at Tree of Life– we didn’t know the extent of the fatalities, but the sirens alone told us that this was bad. Worry for my husband and kids and my PZ family–were they safe, how were they handling all of this? Part of me was desperate to find the rest of my family so that we could be together, even while I knew intellectually that the safest thing to do was to follow instructions and stay put.

Towards the end of davening, the lockdown was over, and just like that, we could breathe again. There were many questions left to be answered, and there was much apprehension about what lies ahead for us as a community. For a brief moment, the order of the day was to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah boy who had affirmed that life and love can exist, in literally the same moment as darkness and hate.

The two days that have followed have contained years. Eternities. Holding our breath as the information trickled in regarding the devastating loss of life at Tree of Life. The relief of hugging friends who survived. Waiting until after Shabbos to reassure our friends and family outside of Pittsburgh. The outpourings of support. Watching our beloved city and community become national news for all the wrong reasons. Comforting our kids and answering their questions when we too have so many questions. Living the normal rhythms of life, while simultaneously grieving and processing.

While I am normally a news junkie, I have avoided actual media coverage of events, not needing any outsider’s words and views to color my thoughts. I have instead been glued to my own social media stream, where our community has come together to hold each other up.

Since we are, after all, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, we do the only thing we can- we look for the helpers, and we look to be the helpers. We will look for any way that we can support those who were directly affected, and remember those that were lost.

On Saturday night, my own almost-Bar Mitzvah son and I were discussing the events of the day. He turned to me and said, “Today, worlds were created and worlds were destroyed. When someone saves a life, worlds are created, and when someone takes a life worlds are destroyed. Both happened today.”

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  1. Many thanks for sharing your perspective—you added a beautiful layer to my comprehension of the incomprehensible.Todah rabah.

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Anna Yolkut

Anna Yolkut is a rebbetzin, teacher, and mother of six adorable children. She teaches at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and is the rebbetzin of Paole Tzedek. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she and her husband were the rabbi and rebbetzin in Richmond, VA. Anna became observant through NCSY and earned a B.A. in psychology at Stern College.