How The Massacre At My Pittsburgh Synagogue Changed My Idea Of Home

Some years ago, a writer commented on a short story I had written, “when you write about Israel, your prose sings but when you write about America, your writing falls flat.”

I let that sink in for a minute. “Why couldn’t I write about America in the same way I wrote about Israel?” I knew the answer. Although I was born in America, Israel was the country of my heart.

For eleven years now, since returning to the States from Israel where I lived for 18 years, I’ve had to figure out creative ways of dealing with the loss of giving up a country I loved, and dealing with Reverse Culture Shock – the psychological, emotional and cultural aspects of returning home. Tragically, I’ve finally been able turn my longing into belonging in my own Pittsburgh community when the Tree of Life massacre hit our Squirrel Hill home.

Often my longing is so strong that it threatens to consume me. Here’s what typically ends up happening on the Jewish holidays: I log on to a well-known Israel Facebook group and immediately see places like the Sea of Galilee, the kibbutz where I used to live, and the holy city of Jerusalem. Inevitably, I smell the aromatic oven baked pitas and challahs, freshly ground hummus and date cakes.

In my mind’s eye, I find myself transporting there–to be with friends and family around a dinner table eating succulent traditional dishes and Jewish holiday foods. We’re laughing. Using hand gestures. Joking with one another. I’m speaking Hebrew, a language that brings me alive. I’m connecting with people in ways I’ve never managed to do here in the States. But then I look around me and I’m home. The Facebook group is just that–an online group. My unsatisfied longings surge and I’m left with a feeling of emptiness.

This kind of unsatisfied longing is not unique to people who long for a place; it exists after death or divorce or separation from loved ones, too. This kind of longing is about a desire to be connected to some place or something when you cannot. This kind of longing is about deep loss.

These feelings get especially exacerbated because of social media – which can leave us wishing, hoping, yearning for what we don’t have. When I go on Facebook, I see images of Israel that only amplify what I can’t have.

There’s not much space in our culture for conversations about unsatisfied longings. For those of us who carry these longings in our hearts every day, we do so as an invisible burden. ┬áNo one else can ever validate enough how hard it feels to experience the longing, so we often suffer alone. The consequences of this suffering is isolation at best and alienation at worst.

After some years of experiencing this constant longing and realizing it may never shift, I decided to ask myself some open, honest and deeply vulnerable questions. “What can I do to feel more emotionally safe in Pittsburgh? How can I feel at home?”

When the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue befell our community on October 27, 2018, I witnessed something I know to be true in catastrophes–that it brought the community closer together. Seeing how the entire city of Pittsburgh and the world at large stood in solidarity with those beloved souls unlocked a deeper connection in me, one that I’d only felt when I lived in Israel. This senseless tragedy connected me to the fact that I had become part of this community.

Joseph Ranseth has said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Here was an opportunity to embrace that drive for my own change – to find home.

I started baking challahs on Thursday, posted pictures online and asked anyone if they would like a warm fresh challah. People started answering the call. Then I started putting out the call for Friday night dinner invitations. And Jewish holiday invitations. I’ve invited neighbors and synagogue goers to our home for a meal.

Although I can’t bring back those beautiful souls, I discovered how this form of personal outreach has kept my longings at bay. I’ve spent 11 years longing for connection, but couldn’t see how I could be the connector I was seeking. Allowing myself to be a beacon of light in the darkness of this tragedy has opened new possibilities to be the change I wanted to see, to connect to my community in ways that had previously just been longings. The biggest surprise to me was how easy it’s been to invite people in and for others to say yes. Any one of us can open our hearts in this way and turn our longings into belonging.

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