“I’m writing this while the victims are still being buried at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. This period, just after any death, is a hard time, and lot of meaningful things have been said in the media already. The worst part about this rise in hatred and violence is that it was entirely predictable. In fact, I wrote about it in November 2016, in an opinion piece for the CBC in a piece called “Keep your passports up to date.”
On the day of the Pittsburgh shooting, I walked to synagogue in Winnipeg, where I live, with one of my twins to go to services. The other kid had the “I’m grouchy” sniffles and stayed home with his dad. We had a marvelous Shabbat “date” together. It was only when I got home and we were eating lunch together that my husband said, “Don’t turn on the radio or TV news.” That’s how I knew something really bad had happened.
By Sunday morning, we all needed to blow off some steam. I took my kids to the brand new accessible playground at Winnipeg’s Grant Park. It’s right near the Pan Am Pool building. After 45 minutes of bone-chilling playground duty, I grabbed both boys by the hand and steered them towards the car. That’s when I saw the graffiti on a door to a mechanical room for the pool. It was a big Jewish star – and inside it was a swastika.
I went to the pool front desk at 11:15, both kids in tow, and reported it. Then, I went home and reported it, with the help of a friend, to 311, to B’nai Brith, to the editor of the Jewish Post and News and to the police. This wasn’t an active emergency, so I called the non-emergency phone number. It took more than 30 minutes to get through to the police. When I did, they said, “Well, it’s on the Pan Am’s property, they have to report it.” I got nowhere, and it was time to take my kids to their piano lesson.
I’ve learned since having kids that you can’t just put them on pause and ask them to wait around. I had to keep going with life. I also didn’t want my whole day to be about somebody’s hate graffiti. I briefly mentioned my concerns about the exchange with the police to my non-Jewish friend, Kirsten, in Brandon, Man. She apparently posted it on Facebook. Within a short time, seven Winnipeg friends of hers reported the graffiti and, get this, two American friends called long-distance. They both live in Pennsylvania: one in Philadelphia, and one in Pittsburgh.
By the time piano lessons were over at 2:15, Ran Ukashi was following up on behalf of B’nai Brith. The graffiti had been painted over.
At the end of the weekend, I felt exhausted with emotions, as I’m sure many did. My parents, who live in Virginia, send video clips to my kids, as a way of keeping up with them from afar. Their video for Monday morning was heartening. They showed “just a regular” Sunday evening at their congregation. Multiple meetings and events were scheduled, and Jewish life went on as usual – aside from the evening service, which included an impromptu memorial service.
Then I was contacted via an online forum by an online acquaintance from Quebec, a (non-Jewish) Canadian named Esther. She moved here from Germany. She felt worried. She told me she wanted to be an ally, to support and reach out, and then she gave me her full name, address and phone number. “Just in case … for an emergency,” she said.
At our community’s memorial service, the sanctuary was so full that I stood for half of it. There were hundreds of people who could not get inside, it was too crowded. There were probably more than a thousand people there, including every kind of Winnipegger. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, women in hijabs, priests in their clerical collars – everyone. Also there were the mayor, the police chief and many other “important” political people. All there to support the Jewish community.
The service was like a Jewish funeral, but, instead of one person, we were mentioning Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh and doing a prayer or two for healing, peace and hope. It was a good moment to be a Canadian.
This morning, we got a video from my folks about their official memorial service, also held on Tuesday, Oct. 30. Like ours, it was completely packed to overflowing with good people who came together, from all religions, from all over the area, to support the northern Virginia Jewish community.
I wondered what to write about, and mentioned it to Kirsten. She was visiting with her dad, Bruce McFarlane, a retired professor of sociology, who is in a care home there. He recalled, with pleasure, spending time with Chassidic families at their celebrations in Montreal. His response?
“What can one write after this week? Honestly, I thought this world would have been better by the time I got this old!” Later, he said, “I’m tired of the violence. Why is it still happening?” And, finally, he wished me peace. He wished peace to me and my family.
This has been a hard time, and I can’t do any better than what Prof. McFarlane said. Jewish tradition has many prayers for peace, hope and healing, and there’s no better way to commemorate the lives lost in Pittsburgh than to find yourself a place (at a shul or wherever you worship) to say those prayers. It’s a good moment to stand tall, surround yourself with community and be counted and comforted.
I’ve been heartened by the ad hoc support the Jewish community has been offered from everyone around us during this difficult time. If someone offers you support, please say thank you. I know I sure appreciate it. I have felt so grateful to hear others tell me, out of the blue, “I have your back.”
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.