Pittsburgh Mom, Sari Cohen: The Tree-of-Life Massacre Changed Me

Pittsburgh Mom, Sari Cohen: The Tree-of-Life Massacre Changed Me

Last night I went out for dinner with my dear, old friend, Sari Cohen, who is visiting with her family from Pittsburgh. Almost 30 years ago Sari and I, then college students at Dartmouth and Bowdoin, spent a few months at Neve Yerushalayim getting our first taste of Orthodox Judaism. We spent a significant percentage of that summer sharing cynical comments about the strange new stuff we were being taught. But ultimately, looking back (over bowls of soup last night) Sari and I concurred that those weeks at Neve were among the most transformative weeks of our lives, planting the seeds for us to become the religious moms we are today.
I hadn’t seen Sari since the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018. And the story she shared with me last night about her experiences during and following the massacre moved both of us to tears. Here’s what she shared with me:
“I grew up in Pittsburgh and it’s a wonderful place to live. The Jewish community as a whole is close-knit and friendly, no matter what shul you go to. And regarding the larger non-Jewish Pittsburgh community, I’ve always felt very comfortable and accepted.
“On that Shabbat morning, I was walking with my own and my neighbor’s kids to our shul when a friend started running towards me. He told me that there was a shooting taking place at Tree of Life and he was on his way to alert our shul about the shooting and to tell everyone there to stay inside and under lockdown. He told me we should go quickly back home.
“So as we rushed back home, my heart racing, I told my 10-year-old son and our 9-year-old neighbor to pull up their hoods to cover their kippas. The neighbor wasn’t happy about that: “Why should I cover my kippah?!” So I told him that there might be another shooter walking or driving around, and their kippas could, God forbid, make them into targets.”
The boys quickly pulled up their hoods and we b”H made it home safely.
We later found out that 11 people had been murdered that morning, just a few blocks away from our home.
For the next two weeks or so it was hard for me to function. I went through the motions, showed up to work at the medical center where I practice natural medicine, took my kids to school,, etc. But my mind felt kind of numb, frozen.
I, and the whole community, were in shock. That this kind of attack could happen here. In safe, out-of-town Pittsburgh.
At one point I noticed that whenever we left the house, Ezra would pull up his hood. So around a week after the attack, on our way to Trader Joe’s one day, I brought this up with Ezra, and we had a talk about the attack and his fears, and by the time we parked and got out of the car, Ezra agreed to pull down his hood.
We were walking across the parking lot to the store when a middle-aged couple approached us and asked, “Hello, there! Excuse us, but are you, by any chance, Jewish?”
And when we said “yes,” the couple got very emotional. The husband told us, “We live outside of Pittsburgh. But we were so horrified when we heard about the attack at the synagogue, that we drove here today to express our solidarity with the Jewish people.”
Talking about that encounter still makes me cry. In general, in so many ways, after the attack we felt an incredible sense of unity, within the Jewish community and in the city as a whole. I felt like something unfathomably evil had taken place within our midst, but a locked-arm circle of love and protection surrounded us.
And something in me changed too, after that. Until then, I had usually chosen to wear an inconspicuous hair-covering at work.
But after the massacre at Tree of Life, I decided to wear a head-scarf not only when I drove my kids to school, but when I went to work as well. I decided that people might like that. And they might not. But 11 Jews had been murdered for being Jews at Shabbat morning services. And yes, I am a Jew. Too.

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