Friday, January 10, 2020 - Updated: 2:24 pm
An overflow audience awaited the featured speaker at a New Year’s Eve peace vigil hosted by the Pittsburgh Benedictines for Peace. One of the survivors of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre was set to talk about the importance of forgiveness.
For many, the ending of the presentation was a surprise.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of the New Light Congregation, began by quoting from the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“It is our duty to forgive,” he said. “We are commanded to do so.”
Rabbi Perlman recounted the terrible events of the Sabbath morning of Oct. 27, 2018, when a gunman burst into the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
“Our congregation was on the lower level of the building,” he said. “I heard gunshots … and tried to rescue others by hiding them in a storage closet.
“An 87-year-old man who could not hear well stepped out of the room and was shot. Two others who were preparing food also died,” the rabbi said. “The man gunned down people upstairs. Eleven souls were lost.”
After a shootout with police, the assailant surrendered. Social media posts later revealed his violent hatred of Jews. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
Rabbi Perlman has not spoken often in public about the tragedy, trying to heal from the trauma and help others who are still suffering.
“After the shooting, we asked ourselves what we should do. There were cries for an execution after a trial, or that he should be held in prison for the rest of his life,” Rabbi Perlman said.
“We have a close relationship with the church in Charleston (South Carolina) where shootings occurred (in 2015),” he said. “They went through the same conflicting emotions. Some were angry, but then forgave.
“God is the ultimate arbiter of justice, and he will decide who is innocent or guilty,” the rabbi said. “We always try to imitate God.
“But (the gunman) showed no remorse, and had hate in his heart,” he said. “He has not asked for forgiveness or shown regret. In this case, I don’t see a reason to forgive. He hasn’t earned it.”
Jews place a great emphasis on teshuva, or repentance. Judaism teaches that because humans have been given free will, they are responsible for their own actions. If they commit an action that is wrong, then they must seek forgiveness.
In Catholic teaching, Jesus made it clear that believers must forgive unconditionally. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
“Forgiveness can be very hard,” Rabbi Perlman said, his voice rising in response to a question about the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S., including at a kosher market and a rabbi’s home in the New York area.
“It’s a war against Jews,” he said, “it’s (1938) all over again,” describing Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in Germany when Nazis torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed nearly 100 Jews.
Rabbi Perlman pointed to the role of social media in provoking violence. “It’s grown like wildfire, especially among haters.”
“The rabbi gave me much to think about,” said Sister Susan Merrie English, secretary of Pittsburgh Benedictines for Peace. “It had never occurred to me that there would be a difference between the Christian and Jewish approaches to forgiveness.”
“The presentation was informative, thought-provoking, challenging and presented with raw honesty,” said Sister Barbara Helder, sub-prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh.
“Forgiveness is a complex topic. It relates to understanding, hope, love and compassion,” said Aryeh Sherman, former president and CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services, who was on his way to the synagogue and narrowly missed the massacre.
“We all still mourn for the loss of our congregants,” Sherman said. “Being here tonight is part of the healing process.”