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I Was a Cantor at the Tree of Life Synagogue

A personal tale of connection to the Tree of Life hate crime.


I’m one of the countless number of Americans who are reeling from news of the heinous shooting of 11 people — savagely killed early on a quiet Saturday morning, only and specifically because they were observers of the Jewish faith. 

The innocents were attending Shabbat morning services as members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill community. Rose Mallinger, age 97, was one of those precious souls. To most people she is unknown, yet somehow familiar.

That’s because I believe every congregation has a Rose… someone who is the rock of their community, always on time, and never misses a single service. We love the elders of our congregations because they make us feel secure — connected — cared for.

Their lives are the brightly hued threads that weave together the rich tapestries of our spiritual communities.

These sweet elders — the pillars of our communities — provide continuity and context for our lives.

They remind us that we’ve all come from somewhere, and that our traditions and values will continue — l’dor vador — from generation to generation.

Aside from sharing what the countless number of Americans are feeling — the emotional aftershocks of what happened this weekend — I’m honoring a different connection to these people and this place.

Because it was my home.

Squirrel Hill was my neighborhood… my community. I served proudly as the Cantor — one of the spiritual leaders for the Tree of Life congregation at a time when life felt brighter, newer, and more hopeful. I did what I could to uphold the people through my pulpit, while those people upheld me as a newly divorced mother raising two very young children.

Below are excerpts of the remarks I offered at the Hillels of Westchester service and candlelight vigil held at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY — close to where I now live in Westchester County. My daughter, a toddler when we lived in Squirrel Hill, is now an early freshman at a college located down the street (SUNY Purchase).

I spoke these words for them — the youth — baby activists — and our country’s best hope for a brighter future.

…..

I’m (Cantor) Shira Adler. For the last several years I’ve lived & served part-time for pulpits in Westchester.  I’m also a non-denominational interfaith minister, spiritual counselor/healer, author, activist, and entrepreneur.  For the past 30+ years, literally since I was in the age of many of the students here right now, I’ve served and sung in Jewish synagogues and places of spirituality and sacred worship — across all faith denominations.

I’ve had the honor of uplifting families, congregations, and communities through music, spiritual care, and community leadership — sharing and supporting others in the most intimate expressions of our fragile and precious human life.

I’ve held sacred witness to the miracle of birth, the joy of watching a child come of age, officiated countless celebrations of union, held wringing and worried hands clenched through challenges of aging and illness — and honored the departure from our earth plane reality and dimension.

Most of the time these experiences happened appropriately, in accordance with natural and physical law. But too often in these days, they happen in extremes, through sudden violent bursts of anger and explosion — words and actions incited, encouraged, or subtly tolerated by hate, prejudice, racism, bigotry, and divisiveness.

I’ve served several pulpits with love and joy, and one, especially so — because while living in the midst of their vibrant community, I was not only a caretaker of the congregation, but of two babies that I brought into this world. And the world back then felt a bit safer. And the music was sung with more of a carefree heart.

That kehillah kedoshah — that sacred community — was Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill, a suburb of Pittsburgh. I was their Cantor and a younger mother. And life felt safe, good, and sacred.

And my now teenagers have grown up in a world different from the one in which I grew up… And when I look out at your faces this evening I see my own children… and I am moved beyond measure… moved beyond the sadness and tragedy of what happened this past Shabbat morning… to a place of hope…

Because though your young lives are full of things that we, as your elders, parents, and community leaders wished not to be so… the fact is you’re stronger, wiser, more compassionate, connected, and engaged because you have no choice. The world you’ve been brought into requires a different level of commitment to our ideals, ethics, and values.

And regardless of the Jewish perspective, belief, and expression of b’tzelem E’lohim… being created in the Divine image… people of all faith share this wisdom.

That is part of your strength too… feeling and appreciating that we are all connected as spiritual beings having an often painful — sometimes excruciatingly painful — human experience.

Muslims, Jews, Christians… brothers and sisters… all children of Abraham. A crime against one is a crime against us all.

So even in our moment of pain and grief, please remember this. We are all connected as neshamot — souls. 

Souls have no color. They are not familiar with, nor bound by hate, prejudice, bigotry, or racism. Souls are simply higher consciousness, mirroring the Divine within — and without. Souls are the energy of pure love and light.

And remembering that is what will get us through this, and future iterations of ugliness and evil expressed through the human experience.

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