Breaking and Rebuilding


Written by Shira Lankin Sheps & Rachel Hercman

One year ago, on October 27, 2018, The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA was hit with a terror attack by a gunman who killed 11 people praying together. This attack is considered the largest attack on a Jewish community in American history. 

These people were our friends, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. They came to pray on a regular Shabbos morning as they had been for many years. They were stolen from us and we were shocked. It was surreal. 

Since that day, American Jewry has had to adapt to a new reality. 

In the following months, we have had other shootings of Jews in American shuls; in Poway, California, another in Miami, Florida. There has been a slew of physical assaults on Jews in Brooklyn, and cases of swastikas, anti-semitic graffiti, and vandalism of shuls, schools, and college campuses. America, now aligned with the sharp jump of incidents in Europe and around the world. 

The statistics of how American Jews feel about the rise of antisemitism in the “Goldene Medina” are staggering. The American Jewish Committee put out a poll that was released this month that states that 84% of American Jews believe that antisemitism has risen “A lot” or “Somewhat” in the last five years. 

The bottom line is, that the life of safety– or at least the illusion of it- in which many of us were raised in America has been altered. Even with the warnings and heightened sensitivity that we inherited from the Holocaust-era generations that raised us– many of us did not envision our adulthood to be like this. 

If we hadn’t felt it before, this past year’s wave of violence against Jews all over the world has broken our assumptions. 

We assume that when we go about our regular business; shul, school, supermarket, walking down the street, the mall- that we will return home. It’s that assumption that keeps us from staying in bed all day, too afraid to go about our daily lives. Our lives are filled with assumptions that enable us to function; we assume that we will be okay so that we keep showing up for life. 

Perhaps what separates us from previous generations is that we are connected to Anti-semitism all the time in the palm of our hands. Our phones keep us tethered to bad news and distressing updates whenever we open our apps and look. We can be hooked into focusing on the danger all the time. 

What happens is that many of us are experiencing an energetic burnout. It’s too hard. It’s too scary. It’s too all-consuming. The world feels dangerous.

Oftentimes, we cope by tuning out. We binge-watch. We numb our brains by flipping through news channels and newsfeeds. We are searching for white-noise and distraction. It offers a short escape from the pain.

Perhaps we can replenish what is depleted within us by finding spaces that revive us and teach us resiliency. Find or create a space that is spiritually alive for you. Make it yours till you feel vibrant again. 

We can’t check out of Jewish history– but we can opt-in. Let’s engage more Jewishly than ever. Let’s learn. Let’s lean on each other. Let’s grow in our commitment and our resolve to be resilient. The Tree of Life synagogue is reopening with plans to expand, to remember, and to create new life in their community at home and around the world. 

Today we remember:

Joyce Fienberg, 75

Richard Gottfried, 65

Rose Mallinger, 97

Jerry Rabinowitz, 66

Cecil Rosenthal, 59

David Rosenthal, 54

Bernice Simon, 84

Sylvan Simon, 86

Daniel Stein, 71

Melvin Wax, 88

Irving Younger, 69


Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.

She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.

She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.

Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.

Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.