Phil Elson, talk show host and radio voice of Razorback Baseball and women’s basketball, gave the following talk at Congregation B’Nai Israel on Monday, Oct. 29, after the Oct. 27 fatal gun attack on 11 congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh:
My heart is broken. Not because of anything involving baseball or the Razorbacks or anything that has to do with sports whatsoever. I’m lucky that I get to talk about something that is supposed to bring us together in conversation about a topic we all enjoy with a passion. But sports is the last thing on my mind.
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I will always be a sports fan. I will always be a baseball guy. I will always be a lover of radio. But I am much more than that. I will also always be Jewish.
I am from Pittsburgh. I have lived in Little Rock for 18 years, but I certainly identify with both cities as home. I’m as Arkansan as anyone who says “y’all” and I’m as Pittsburgh as anyone who says “yinz.” And for years I was a member of the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 people were murdered in cold blood during Shabbat services Saturday morning. The event that took place occurred five blocks from my house, and it’s the same house I stay in when returning to Pittsburgh to visit my parents.
I was educated and celebrated my bar mitzvah inside the main sanctuary at Tree of Life. My sister, too. My daughter, Sadie, was given her Hebrew name there.
We learned Jewish history, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and about our connections to the rest of the world inside Tree of Life synagogue. It was and always has been a place of peace. A refuge for the sad and lonely. A beacon of love and hope.
But evil entered through those doors two days ago. Now blood spatters the walls. Death hangs above, and those who would seek wisdom and light in a place where wisdom and light was always so easy to find must seek elsewhere.
My heart is broken. My soul hurts and my faith in humankind is shaken in ways that are impossible to describe.
My father, Howard, was president of Tree of Life a decade ago. My mother served as its treasurer. I knew those 11 people. I worshipped with them. Shook their hands after services and wished them a good Shabbat. I would joke with Cecil Rabinowitz each time we saw each other. I remember 97-year-old Rose Mallinger very well. Irv Younger lived on my street. I used to talk Pirates baseball with Daniel Stein and walked to Alderdice High School with his daughter, Leigh.
I am crushed. My community of Squirrel Hill back home is hurting. There is no sense to make of any of this.
Let me tell you about Squirrel Hill. It is sometimes described as “one of the great urban Jewish neighborhoods in the country.” And that’s only partially correct. It is one of the great neighborhoods in the United States, period. Synagogues and temples dot the landscape of Squirrel Hill. But so do churches and gathering places of almost any kind. Bagel shops, kosher butchers … the crux of the community is the Jewish Community Center at the corner of Forbes and Murray. But to call it a Jewish community doesn’t tell the whole story.
First off, there are Jews of every kind who live there: Orthodox, Hassidic, Reform, Conservative, some who attend services every week, some who go twice a year for the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And some who don’t go to services ever. We can’t even agree with each other on how to practice the religion. But we can agree that we are all Jews and that we are all humans and we are stronger together than separated. And we can agree that love is stronger and more powerful than hate.
But it is so much more than a Jewish neighborhood. Put it this way: If America is a melting pot, well, Squirrel Hill is the stew. It is a welcoming place to all peoples regardless of religion (or lack thereof), race, creed, sexual orientation or nationality. The second definition of the word community is “a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common interests and goals.” Squirrel Hill, and really Pittsburgh as a whole, is a community in every sense of the word. It is cohesive. It is a loving place. And it is shattered. Only for the time being, though.
The history of the Jewish people teaches resilience and strength. We have been kicked out of entire countries, persecuted and blamed for the ills and failures of one society or another. We have been massacred only because we are Jewish.
And the fact here is, we are strong. And the neighborhood that is Squirrel Hill and the community inside its borders and the community that was and is Tree of Life synagogue is stronger than evil and stronger than hate.
And that brings me to the only reason those 11 souls are gone. Hate. I can’t stand it. Hate and the actions some people take because of their myopic societal views that are based on hate. And that hate is based on fear, fear of something or someone you do not understand.
In my time at Tree of Life, I learned about the power of love. I am not sorry if this sounds a little cheesy or simplistic, but the truth is that love conquers evil. Love conquers all. You don’t need to be Jewish to believe that. You don’t need to believe in God to believe that. Love conquers all. And the hate and evil that entered Tree of Life on Saturday morning will not triumph. No.
The Jewish community, and specifically the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, is too strong for that. You want to know what those 11 worshippers were doing on Saturday? They were celebrating Shabbat. Which means they were celebrating love and joy and peace the way Jewish people have for centuries. We are stronger than hate. Always have been. Always will be.
I’ll make it past this. Pittsburgh will heal and so will Squirrel Hill and Tree of Life. Services will continue at that house of peace once the investigations are complete and the blood is cleaned from the walls.
We will not just survive this. We will thrive after this unspeakable act of hate. And that leads me to my last thought.
The most important lesson I learned growing up in a neighborhood that was filled with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, blacks, whites, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indians and immigrants from every corner of the world is that our differences are to be celebrated. What makes us different makes us unique and makes us human. Don’t fear things or ideas or beliefs that are different from your own. Embrace them. Learn from them. If you choose to be fearful — and it is a choice — and if you act upon that fear, then you are aiding the breakdown of society. Act upon love instead. I guarantee we will be better off as a country and as a society and as planet Earth if we have that attitude.
It isn’t always easy to disregard the initial fear you feel when encountering these differences. But cast that fear aside. Be brave! And you’ll find that we as human beings are so much better off acting upon love.