Archive for November, 2018


November 21, 2018 Comments Off on THE TREE OF LIFE General

Israel is such a beautiful place to visit. We were there for a second time in the summer of 2017, accompanied by a wonderful group of friends and neighbors mainly from our Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh community.  One day, returning to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea and Masada, we stopped at the lovely Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. Ein Gedi has exciting hiking trails, botanical gardens, and a delightful waterfall for swimmers. When we arrived, I entered the rest room and encountered a group of laughing, happy young women in bathing suits. I guessed that they had been in the waterfall; they were clearly having a really good time.

Shortly after they walked out of the restroom, I heard what sounded like screaming. I rushed out to see one of the young women shouting with joy and embracing her beloved grandfather and grandmother, both of whom were with us on our tour. They had known that they would be in Israel at the same time, but had no idea that they would run into each other. The joy of their coincidental reunion was riveting because it was so filled with their great love for one another.  It was a wonderful moment to witness.

I recalled that joyful reunion in Israel after reading a newspaper article in which the Rabbi of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill described the screams he heard as eleven of his congregants were brutally shot to death on Saturday October 27, 2018. Our home in Squirrel Hill is just about two blocks from the Tree of Life. The morning of the shooting I was working at my computer when a text came in from my neighbor, warning me of a live shooter at the Tree of Life.  We ran to our television and watched the sad story unfold. The world-wide hatred and violence which seems to arrive daily in our newspaper had now come to our own community.

In response to the murder of my neighbors, and the cruel anti-Semitism which so many must fear, I assigned myself a philosophical task. The task was to try to balance the joys of the reunion I witnessed in Israel with the terrible grief experienced by so many families in Squirrel Hill after the shooting. Complete philosophical resolution of course eludes me. However, I have considered anew the ways in which we might best balance the joys we can experience in our lives and relationships with the pain experienced by all who encounter the reality or ramifications of terror and violent death around the world.  How can we build a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives when so many deeply frightening things are happening?

My thoughts about the juxtaposition of joy and violence – the best and worst of things that can happen – returned me to writings that have been my touchpoints for years.  The first is that of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Book of Hours contains poetic imaginary conversations the Almighty might have with us:

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

This quote has been an inspiration to me because it allows dual acknowledgement of what we value most greatly in our lives with we find most frightening. There is a fluidity in these polarized experiences that allows us to move both between them and forward from them toward what is right and good.

Rilke further writes:

“Flare up like a flame; make big shadows I can move in.”

We need not hide or diminish our responses to joy or fear or sorrow. When we fully articulate our most powerful reactions to what is beautiful and what is terrifying, we can help to create meaningful spaces for others to be inspired in their own lives and ultimately to act for the good of others.

I think it is natural to feel powerless in the face of our greatest social problems. How can anyone eradicate hatred and prejudice? How can anyone control the huge proliferation of weapons of war and destruction in our own society? How can anyone end the poverty and lack of meaningful education that can so often lead to anger and the destructive desire to harm others?

When I ask myself these questions, I am inspired by the beautiful writing of educator David Purpel, who was committed to the moral and purposeful life. I think his answer to “What can we do?” was always “Something.” Whenever something is done, no matter how small or futile it may seem, something else happens. Courage begets courage, love begets love, compassion begets compassion. As Purpel wrote in his book Moral Outrage in Education:

“Problems surely can and should be ameliorated, suffering and pain reduced, justice and equity increased, peace furthered, violence lessened, meaning strengthened. To accomplish even limited gains is exalting and exhilarating for as the Talmud teaches, ‘It is not for us to finish the task _ but neither are we free to take no part in it.”

I believe that what both Rilke and Purpel offer is the power of transcendence – of using what we value and treasure the most to strengthen our ability to confront terror and violence with a courageous sense of purpose and hope.  We can move forward, we can enact our best moral selves, and we can serve in the healing of the world.

I dedicate this blog to those who died in the Tree of Life on October 27, 2018. May their memory be for blessing.

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

The author took this photograph of a tree turning to fall colors in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.