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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

A Year After: Remembering the Tree of Life Massacre

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

It has been a year now since the antisemitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news: on the subway train in NYC, sitting next to my partner, first responding with utter shock and showing them my phone, and then the both of us trying not to cry on a train full of strangers. We got off the train and cried in the street, the cold air stinging the tear stains on our cheeks.


“Why do they hate us?” we asked each other. “Why do they continue to hate us?” On the one hand, this feels entirely new. On the other, it feels as old as our people.


And then my partner asked me, “Do you think we should cover our kippot? Is it safe?”


This was the question many of our ancestors had to ask themselves. In our country and the old ones, our people felt like they had to choose: civil rights, or Judaism. Jews were welcomed into civil society, so long as they didn’t look or act Jewish: so we assimilated. While the Reform Movement was at the forefront of assimilation efforts, we had been emerging from centuries of oppression, including forced conversions, ghettoization, mass murder, and barred from citizenship or legal status as humans. When the rest of the world got their citizenship and civil rights, the Jews were excluded, seen as a separate class of people. “How could someone both be French and a Jew?” they would ask. Since Jews are of the nation of Israel, they were not allowed to be members of the nations in which they lived. For some countries, such as Russia, Jews did not gain citizenship until the twentieth century, over one hundred years after the birth of Reform Judaism. We thought that our oppression lay in the fact that we were separate from society – we were in segregated communities, we wore different clothes, we spoke different languages, our religious practices were different, and our cultures were different too. They thought that if the other nations could see us as being like them, then they would cease to hate us.


Clearly, this has not been the case. Antisemitism had not even been coined at that time – back then it was just called Jew hatred. Jew hatred would continue to evolve and find new forms, even as we did our best to make ourselves likable.


I think the Reform Movement has done many things right – I think the push to modernize Judaism was and remains a good idea – but assimilation has not protected us, and it has removed many people from their Jewish identity markers. Many Jews feel safer living in a world that cannot tell they are Jewish.


I wear a kippah because I want to be visibly Jewish. Sometimes this means Uber drivers ask me weird questions like, “How much of Judaism is about Jesus?” and, “Is it true all Jews are rich?” Sometimes it means people pass me on the street and yell, “SHALOM!” and I have no idea if they meant it offensively or not. Sometimes it means a new person I meet immediately asks me about Israel, even though no one brought it up. But sometimes it means when I’m in public and a stranger does something incredibly rude to me, I refrain from acting rashly out of anger or spite, because I know I would be giving the entire Jewish people a bad name to do so as a visible Jew. And sometimes it means a stranger in the elevator on a Friday afternoon says to me, “Shabbat shalom. Where do you go to synagogue?”


When my partner asked me, “Do you think we should cover our kippot? Is it safe?” I remember how I responded: “I don’t know if it’s safe. But we shouldn’t cover our kippot. We can’t let them make us hide who we are.

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