Not Why, But For What: YU’s Reaction to a Jewish Tragedy

By: Ailin Elyasi  |  November 14, 2018

By Ailin Elyasi, Senior News Editor

On October 27th at 9:45 AM, the now infamous Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting occurred, marking possibly the largest mass shooting targeting Jews in US history. Yeshiva University, as a Jewish institution, has responded by actively trying to show solidarity with the 11 people murdered, their families, their friends, and their Pittsburgh community.

Students have been at the forefront of the reactionary support. In the early hours of Sunday morning, students who wanted to show their physical support headed to Pittsburgh and attended the vigils of those brutally murdered for being Jewish, all planned by YU. Again, on Sunday night, October 28th, student leaders from both campuses organized a vigil attended by 150 students, President Berman, and government officials. On the Beren campus, Rabbi Jacob and Rebbetzin Penina Bernstein also organized a night of learning in honor of the souls who lost their lives due to the hatred.

In a public statement, Jon Greenfield, the Director of Governmental Affairs at Yeshiva University, categorized the reaction that Yeshiva University has for the murder: “The selfless character of this next generation of leaders is a light that will light the path to a brighter future.”

Students from Stern have been actualizing that statement. For instance, Bella Adler, Vice President of Shabbat for the Torah Activities Committee, has begun a #ShowupforShabbat campaign to make a statement that shuls should be a safe space and the detestable, cowardly murder in Pittsburgh will not stop Jews from showing up to shul. Explaining her campaign, Bella Adler says, “The #ShowupforShabbat pledge for Pittsburgh that I created is designed to be a visual representation for college students of exactly how many people are choosing to attend shul this Shabbat in honor of the 11 victims and wounded family members of the Pittsburgh tragedy. Though many of us attend shul regularly, there is something special about feeling the weight of being part of a bigger movement that is standing up for change. This change is declaring that we believe that shuls, and all religious institutions, must be safe places for all people, and we are standing in solidarity with those who lost their lives for this cause. Having close to 200 signatures, this pledge, along with all of its signatures, will be hanging in the Beren Campus Best Midrash this Shabbat to demonstrate our unity as we hope for a better future, together.”

President Berman agreed with YU’s mission after a tragedy of this sort. “Yeshiva University has sprung into action on myriad fronts, providing consolation and trauma support to the Squirrel Hill community both in person and from afar; pedagogical and counseling resources to our community educators and rabbis, as well as thoughts from faculty members across our many schools and programs to help our community and the broader society contextualize the events of this past week,” Berman said in a public statement from the Office of the President.

But perhaps most touching reaction is a personal account from Yael Itskowitz, SCW ‘20, who grew up in the very town where the tragedy happened and felt the pain tarnish her memories of her small, warm, Pittsburgh community.  “As Am Yisrael, we have the power to fight back and show that we won’t stand for any more anti-Semitism that is thrown our way, whether in Pittsburgh, PA, in Eretz Yisrael, or anywhere else in the world. To quote Rav Soloveitchik, who I think puts it beautifully, don’t ask למה (why this happened) but ask למה (For what?). What can we do now that makes today a better day than yesterday? How can the Jewish people come together to pick up the pieces of this tragedy and become stronger and more united? It’s left up to each one of us to decide,” reflected Itskowitz in a public statement.