On Jan. 15, three congregants and one rabbi were taken hostage in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. They were held hostage for over 11 hours. In Pittsburgh, over 1,200 miles away, I refreshed news websites in horror.
Shortly before midnight, I updated my status on Facebook: “Today, my heart is in Texas” and, following that, an emoji of a purple heart. I use purple hearts because purple is my favorite color, not out of a desire to communicate a feeling of bravery. I’d be lying, though, if I said sharing these words didn’t feel like an act of bravery. They do.
I can feel my heartbeat ping-ponging between my chest and my throat as I try, only somewhat successfully, to convince my body that today I am not the one in imminent danger. As a Jewish Pittsburgher who spent the first 16-plus years of his life at Tree of Life, the trauma from the vile and violent attack at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation less than three-and-a-half years ago still lingers.
This time in Colleyville, Texas. This time in a state I’ve never visited. This time in a synagogue where I was never a member. This time in a synagogue I can’t picture when I close my eyes. This time in a synagogue where I did not learn the Hebrew word for heart, lev (לב). This time the pit in my stomach wasn’t connected to the fear that I would recognize the names of any of the hostages. This time.
I say “this time” because, as a Jewish young adult, I am more than well aware that antisemitism has been around for just about as long as we have existed. The oppression and persecution of Jews has been and continues to be near constant, a prominent feature of our history. Our history has shown us that, oftentimes, we as Jews don’t have the choice of whether or not to be resilient; it feels like a prerequisite for life that never really goes away.
On the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, I was at home with my dog, cuddled in bed, and trying to summon the energy to walk downstairs to make myself breakfast. The desire to stay under the covers to stay warm was soon replaced by the need to stay under the covers to muffle the relentless screams of sirens from police cars and every other type of emergency and crisis response vehicle imaginable as they rushed to a synagogue just blocks away from me.
For a few short minutes that I wish I could remember more than I do, I was still naïve to what was going on. It’s hard not to feel a sense of longing at the thought of returning to the protectiveness of a time when things were still OK. Then, the flood of incoming texts from loved ones: Are you safe? How are you doing; are you OK? Wait, is that your synagogue? I started typing the same text to so many people that after the third or fourth iteration, my phone began to autocomplete my sentences: I am physically safe. I am emotionally shaken.
I grew up at Tree of Life, but left and became a member at a different synagogue several years prior to the attack. Still, I could close my eyes and mentally navigate through the building. In the following days, as more information about the attack was unearthed, so too were my own memories — praying in the sanctuary, learning in classrooms, walking up and down the stairwells to get to class or bar mitzvah lessons or services, opening the supply closet to get extra paper or pencils for class — came roaring back to me. I longed for each of these places to seem mundane again.
At this point, it felt nearly impossible to use my better judgment and ignore social media and the news. I wasn’t a glutton for punishment, but I also couldn’t avert my eyes from the horrors that had just happened. The need to know what was going on was overwhelming. Nothing could make sense of this. No explanation for tragedy makes it sting any less.
I turned on the television and started scrolling through social media and saw everything from people sharing their memories of growing up at Tree of Life to people discussing the way their stomach dropped hearing what was going on. And then, I started to see people I knew — other people who live in Pittsburgh — using their social media accounts (and, later, some of this even extended into conversations in real life) as a way of perpetuating antisemitic tropes; though they weren’t necessarily condoning what had happened, they weren’t condemning it either. At the time, my community was still in horror and disbelief. I was still in horror and disbelief. My sense of safety was gone. Though I wanted to be mad about the hateful rhetoric, and I was mad about it, it was hard to feel much of anything beyond shattered.
Fast forward to 2022. I still hesitate when I walk to synagogue wearing a kippah on my head. Sometimes, I stash it in my coat pocket, waiting until I’m just outside the door of my synagogue to put it on. I could write a book of all the Facebook posts I started to write, but then deleted, because I was tired and afraid of more hateful rhetoric. As much as I want to say that I combat such comments head-on, it is hard to do when I see how normalized antisemitism has become. It’s painful seeing all the not talking about it that many of my peers are doing.
When I started receiving alert notifications on my phone about the hostage situation in Texas, the numbness started to return. Though I was just about certain I knew no one there, it still felt like my community was the one being attacked. It still felt like Oct. 27th all over again. I continually refreshed different news websites, searching for more information, again naively chasing a feeling of understanding that is impossible to find after tragedy.
This time there was no cacophony of police sirens. This time I saw just a handful of Facebook posts about what was going on. This time few of my friends were talking about what was happening. This time it wasn’t happening in our backyard. This time.
Being Jewish in the United States in 2022 shouldn’t be traumatic and, on its own, it’s not. But with the normalization of hate and extremism, along with the romanticization of antisemitism — something I’ve seen to a scary degree among my peers and in spaces touted as being inclusive — it’s hard not to feel like this is the same wound, reopened.
As I, like many others, wait for more information to come from what happened at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas, I will also be closely watching the words of news outlets and friends alike as I grapple with my own sense of belonging and the courage I wish I didn’t need to tell people I’m Jewish.
Eli Kurs-Lasky, a Pittsburgh native, typically experiences Pittsburgh through writing and photography (self-taught). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.