A Congregant Reacts to the Tragedy in Pittsburgh

CBTBI member Jay Chaskes spoke at our recent interfaith vigil to remember the 11 victims of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He delivered an abbreviated version of the speech below.


Why I am a Jew by Choice: Reflections on the Squirrel Hill Massacre

In the process of conversion to Judaism, the applicants must appear before a religious court, a Bet Din (literally a “house of judgment”) and be questioned concerning their motives for undertaking such a serious and consequential transformation. They are queried concerning how the practice of their chosen faith will impact their relationships with the family and friends with whom they once identified as a gentile. During this examination, the Talmud requires that the supplicants be asked why they wish to join a community, which for thousands of years, has been viewed as a pariah group. Why do they wish to cast their lot with the world’s perpetual outsiders who were the focus of a genocide unparalleled in scale and consequence in human history?

We use the term “Jew by choice” to refer to converts to Judaism. In this country, we are all Jews by choice. In America, we are free to choose any religion or no religion. We are free to step out from the faith community we were born in to. My only sibling, in fact, chose to do that very thing as did his son. The unspeakable horror that unfolded in Squirrel Hill last Shabbat provoked me to examine my own choice to be a participating member of this faith community. When any community lives with the historical burden of a genocide (Armenians, Tutsis and Bosnian Croatians and Muslims come to mind), subsequent attacks on those people engender a distinct terror not experienced by those without such an historical burden.

Last Shabbat, my world, like yours, was rocked to its foundation and, for days, Gail and I erupted in tears of anguish and sorrow. At times I found myself screaming at my television, provoked by reports of reactions to the slaughter by the insensitive, the ignorant, the callous and, of course, the anti-Semitic among us. Although of little comfort but with deep solidarity, Jews all over the world had a similar reactions. My grief was intensified by the fact that I have connections to the Squirrel Hill Jewish community and a familiarity with its history and geography. Recent events in Squirrel Hill have impelled me to recommitment to my love of Judaism and my devotion to this community which I treasure. The fact that I now live in a Jewish world which contains locked door, security alarms, video surveillance, active shooter drills and our police now making frequent “guest appearances” at our gatherings, only makes me more devoted and unswerving in my devotion to Judaism.

I am still here with you proudly proclaiming my choice to be a member of this community. They can take our life but cannot take our truth. My commitment to my people rests on five thousand years of profoundly held and nourished ideas. We take them wherever we establish ourselves, and in doing so, we enrich the communities in which we settle. Here in America, we find ourselves in the midst of some who, once again, seek to arouse the passions of our neighbors against us. We are living in a time when our nation’s political leadership stokes the fires of fear; fear of those who are poor, those who do not speak our language, those who hold fast to loathing religions they fear but not understand, those who do not look European, those who fall in love with members of the same sex, or those who find peace in an alternate gender assignment. Most of our gentile friends and neighbors stand with us against this bigotry and violence. The out poring of their support is unprecedented and comforting.

I remain resolutely hopeful because our religion speaks truth to power. We are the people who defined the dimensions of social justice and showed the world how it is to be practiced. We as a people speak for welcoming strangers, for acts of loving kindness, for the sanctity of human life, for repairing the world, for comforting the mourner, for offering solace to the ill, for a respectful caring of the poor. This is who we were, who we are, and who we always will be.


Yosef Ben Eliyahu
24 Heshvan 5779

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