two hands holding a lit candle in open palms.
Credit: Myriam
Erika Bocknek - woman smiling with long hair and necklace
By Erika Bocknek Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

I write this hours after serving as a lamplighter at the eighth-annual Menorah in the D celebration. This was a true honor. I held the torch to honor the Pittsburgh community and memorialize those who lost their lives in the massacre that took place a month ago at the Tree of Life synagogue. I held the torch, looked at the beautiful faces of my children in the large crowd and thought, my world is bright.

Ahead of this event, I did several interviews with TV news and newspapers, including the JN, about the harrowing ordeal my uncle Barry Werber endured on Saturday, Oct. 27. He is a member of New Life Congregation and survived the violent encounter. The details are, understandably, of interest to many. He was brave in the face of incredible danger and grief, and his story is an important one to tell. Hate continues to find its way into our everyday lives. Life can be cruel, unfair and even unpredictably dangerous. Add to that a fractured society, persistent apathy and easy access to firearms, and this story starts to sound inevitable.

After each retelling, though, I have been struck with how we may be missing the point. When we only tell and retell my uncle’s encounter with a hateful and violent man, we miss the life lessons he has to teach us. My Uncle Barry is optimistic and hopeful. He was before this tragedy and, against all odds, he continues to be now. Who he is is not defined by the man who murdered his friends. He is a person with an open heart and consistent devotion to his faith and congregation. He returned to pray with his congregation immediately.

I am a Detroiter. My mother was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and she met my dad there when they were college students. I spent much of my childhood visiting Pittsburgh. I have been lucky to spend significant time in many American cities — New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Philadelphia among them. I’ve always said Pittsburgh is the most special.

In truth, my specific memories of Pittsburgh are not city-specific: hot summer days playing with my cousins in my grandparents’ pool, lighting sparklers on the front lawn on the Fourth of July with my uncles and ice cream sundaes at King’s with my grandma. It’s the people that have made Pittsburgh the biggest and brightest in my heart. The intangible warmth of neighbors and friends, the sincerity of people I knew and loved, and the easy friendliness of strangers. Pittsburgh is generations-deep filled with families who took root and continued to grow. Pittsburgh has heart. Pittsburgh is the comeback kid, much like Detroit — and like the Jewish people. As we say at Pesach, in every generation, more than one enemy has risen up to try to destroy us; and in every generation God saves us.

If the tragedy inspires anything, let it be love and not fear. Support your community with your talents, engagement and resources. Show up to services. Don’t take it for granted that we have so many beautiful buildings housing talented and brilliant clergy to lead us in prayer and ritual. Light the Shabbat candles in your home and invite friends to your table. Invest in your children’s Jewish identity. We are blessed to live in a time when we can publicly light a giant menorah in the middle of Detroit and spread the light of our holiday with pride. That should inspire awe.

This past Shabbat marked the end of Sheloshim, the period of mourning for the victims of the Oct. 27 massacre. My Uncle Barry described praying with his congregation, which has only grown stronger, in a service held at Beth Shalom. He felt the warmth of friends and of happy memories he had made there, having been married at that very synagogue many years ago. Even in darkness, perspective and faith can light the way. May we all find our own light.

Erika Bocknek of Farmington Hills is an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Wayne State University.

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