Flowers surround signs on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar | Associated Press)

Flowers surround signs on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar | Associated Press)

Opinion: A way to respond to the Pittsburgh shooting

I have lived in Alaska for 35 years — first Anchorage and now Haines — but I grew up in the Tree of Life synagogue where this weekend’s massacre occurred.

My home was a few blocks away in one direction and my elementary school a few blocks away in another direction. I am very interested in sharing my perspective with Alaskans.

Squirrel Hill is a Jewish neighborhood — Pittsburgh has many ethnic neighborhoods — but by no means exclusively. Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach lives across the street from the synagogue. His street leads to Chatham College, a small women’s college. Pittsburgh is in many ways a very connected city. Today, many Steelers attended one of the funerals as the family of some of those shot worked for the team. On the other corner is the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh which serves disabled children. But, mostly, it is a quiet, residential neighborhood.

I have had so many reactions to this event. Even now, it is hard to comprehend. I immediately worried about whether there was a Bar Mitzvah or other big celebration that might have caused there to be more people in the congregation. I wondered what part of the building the gun man was in. Which sanctuary? In the classrooms? I worried about my neighborhood and the city.

But, eventually, I started to wonder what I could do. This is not political. That is a very typical Jewish reaction. We are taught Tikkun Olam. This is a basic Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage. So, it is very typical to grasp for some course of social action.

I have often wondered about the parents of the high school shootings and kindergarten shootings who now spend time speaking out. They didn’t want to become activists. They just wanted to watch their kids grow up. How do they manage? Personally, I am grateful my father, a World War II veteran, is not alive to witness this.

I didn’t wake up on Saturday and think, “Today, I am going to get engaged in the national debate over guns or our election.” I had other plans for the day like going for a hike after a lot of rain down here. But here I am trying to respond with some opportunity that is relevant for me and for Alaskans.

The Tree of Life tragedy is not unique. Even in tiny Haines, I have friends who went to Columbine High School. Across the way in Skagway, someone was at the concert in Las Vegas. Attending a wedding in Las Vegas, I was in that same hotel weeks after the shooting. I don’t think this is coincidence. I think these shootings are just so common, it’s not unusual to have firsthand connections.

I am not interested in banning guns. There are guns in my home. I am not even interested in becoming an expert on this. I do feel there needs to be more room for honest discussion. Our country is spiraling out of control and we need to at least make room.

It was pointed out to me that Don Young is on the board of the NRA. I don’t see how he can be open to honest discussions about assault weapons and serve on that board at the same time. We need room for these discussions.


• Sue Libenson is a 35-year Alaska resident, formerly living in Anchorage and now residing in Haines. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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