From It Could Have Been Me to It Was Me

Tree of Life Synagogue - Article by Ada Perlman

“What?” I heard my mother’s disbelief coming from outside my bedroom. It was about 10:15 a.m. on October 27th. I disregarded the nervousness in her voice and went back to sleep.

A few moments later, she came into my room and sat on my bed. She was solemn and sober, and I could not figure out why. “Ada,” she said, with loss in her voice. “Abba is okay, but there was a shooting at Tree of Life.” A shooting? In Squirrel Hill? At my shul? That was impossible. I pinched myself to make sure I was not dreaming, as I had just woken up.

I sprang up in bed. “What? Where is Abba? Is he okay?” I said, my voice in shock. “He is upstairs,” my mother assured me. I sprinted up the stairs faster than I’ve ever run before and to my relief, there was my dad. I hugged him and squeezed him tight. “I love you. I am so glad you are here.” I was still shocked. My dad had his phone out, something that is normally forbidden on Shabbat. He was scrolling through his contacts to see if he could get in touch with any of his congregants or their spouses who were at the shul that day. One answered. It was the wife of someone who was at shul that day.

“Rabbi, Rabbi! I do not know where he is! Rabbi, I do not know what to do!” The woman’s voice was completely hysterical; her tone something I will never forget. My dad tried to reassure the woman that the gunman probably did not go down into our sanctuary, which is in the basement. He was traumatized too, but he had to be a support rock for the others in his congregation. The calls continued as he got news that two of our congregants were able to get out as well. One of them said he saw someone from our congregation being shot. The man had been hidden in the storage closet with three others (my father included), but when the gunshots stopped, he thought it was safe to come out.

“They got Mel!!” A frantic voice screamed on the phone. I started crying, fearing for my shul, for my future, for my religion, for my city. Will the gunman go to the other shuls? What if he is not acting alone? Will people be afraid to come to shul? Will my dad lose his job because no one will want to come anymore? What about Dan and Rich? Are they alive? So many thoughts buzzed through my head as I tried to make sense of this tragedy.

“Come on. Go get dressed. Let us daven.” My mother walked with me downstairs to my bedroom as I cried. When I entered, I saw a sign on my wall that I had held for my school’s walkout for the Parkland shooting months before. The sign stated “It Could Have Been Me.” I burst into tears because the sign was true. Although I tried to prevent this from happening by protesting and preparing walkouts, my government did not change. It did not change, and my congregants became victims of gun violence. My community would be added to the list. The list of all the communities affected by gun violence.

I quickly put on a dress and headed downstairs, eager to daven and ask G-d to have mercy. I put on my tallis—something I do not usually wear while I’m praying—but I felt the need to create a closer connection to G-d. My father, my mother, and I put on our prayer shawls and opened our siddurim as we began to pray.

Elohai neshama, she natata be, te hora he” (The soul that You, my G-d, have given me is pure). We repeated this as we cried in disbelief and shock. At every word, the phone rang or there was a knock at the door. This was real. Our little synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Neighbors came to the door and family members called, updating us on the situation because we had not been checking the news. Some came in tears, relieved that we were okay.

The rest of that afternoon was a blur. Visitors came all day, and news stations even started calling us. We had gotten the news that three of our congregants were dead. It was surreal. At night, we went to the JCC to comfort the families of the victims. I felt so important going into that building because only certain people were allowed entry. When we entered, everyone was silent, hugging each other, and trying to make sense of it all.

I talked to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of Tree of Life, who was someone that gave me a lot of hope. “We can’t let this stop us,” he said firmly. “We need to keep going and show everyone who Jews really are.”

He was exactly right, and that is what got me through the week of funerals, shivas, and mourning. Our city of bridges lifted each other up, survivor or not survivor, Jew or non-Jew, we were all there for each other.

Yes, it was me. A not-so-average 14-year-old girl. But now I am different. The city I have lived in most of my life is now defined by the violence that took place there. No one else should have to endure any of the effects of this kind of violence. Enough is enough.

Notes: Ada Perlman’s father, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, is the Rabbi of New Light Congregation, which shares a building with Tree of Life Synagogue and lost three congregants in the shooting on October 27th, 2018.

Accompanying Photo by Andrea Hanks is in the Public Domain
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Ada Perlman is a sophomore at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She loves musical theater and is involved with many productions each year. Some of her passions include singing, writing, running, and reading. Ada's work has been published in Fresh Ink for Teens, The JewishWeek, jGirls+ Magazine, her school newspaper; The Ellisian Times and Large Print; a selective teen journal run out of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.