Why We Went To A Bat Mitzvah After The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

I’m Jewish And I Refuse To Let Fear Stop Me From Celebrating

Zibby Owens

Last weekend, I went to a bat mitzvah, just a few hours after nearly a dozen fellow Jews in Pittsburgh were brutally murdered during a bris. A bris! I remember the bris’s of my two sons like they were yesterday: the pride I felt, the fear of hurting my newborn during this religious and medical ritual, the warmth of my family gathered around us like a cocoon, the comforting sounds of Hebrew prayers.

With every Jewish tradition like this one, I always feel the reverberations of history, the echoes of all the boys’ cries that have come before my own sons’. The idea that one hateful man could enter another family’s sacred moment — in a synagogue, no less, a place so sacred I won’t even enter without wearing a skirt — and slaughter the participants in cold blood is impossible for me to comprehend. And yet, it happened.

As my husband and I sat in our study watching the news footage of the worst attack on Jews in American history yesterday, away from the prying eyes of my four innocent children, we talked about the horror of it all.

“Maybe no bat mitzvah tonight?” My husband said. “Is it even safe to go?”

“We have to go,” I said. Not only did I want to be there to support my dear friend’s firstborn daughter in a family that has gone through its own set of challenges, but I needed to be there. For me, too. There were no other threats. The devil was caught. How could we not?

In the cab down to the bat mitzvah that evening with my two older kids, 11-year-old twins, I decided I had to tell them what happened. I wanted to shield them from the news as long as possible, but I thought it would probably come up in the havdalah service that evening. I wanted to shield them forever. From everything.

While rain pelted on the roof of the cab, the dark sky enveloping us, my son responded by taking a deep breath, shaking his head, and asking, “Is anything like that going to happen here in New York?”

I responded honestly: “I hope not, love.”

During the ceremony, at a beautifully decorated event space, seated on lucite chairs, watching my friend’s radiant, brilliant daughter delight in her big moment, her confidence, poise and happiness emanating from the bimah, I found myself crying throughout, not just for my own personal reasons related to this particular family’s history, but also for what had just happened. I got goosebumps on my arms, imagining so many other bar/bat mitzvahs going on that night, around the world, boys and girls reciting the age old Torah portions, the Hebrew letters floating above us like in a cartoon with loss coursing throughout.

As I stood to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, I tried to stop the tears long enough to chant.

Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’mei raba.

My daughter looked up and took my hand in hers, even stroking my arm a bit. She had uncharacteristically had her pre-teen head on my shoulder for most the service, sensing my distress.

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach l’alam ul’almei almaya. 

What a time to be able to mourn with others in the community. Later, I prayed silently for so much: for the families of those who had lost their lives yesterday, for the Pittsburgh community, for my Jewish community around the world, for our country. I sang all the prayers and recited the familiar blessings, the lullabies of my culture. At the end, I wiped away my tears, a tissue procured from a fellow mom behind me, hugged my kids and husband close, and headed for the celebration.

Before dinner began, the DJ asked all the kids to come onto the dance floor. I started dancing with them all in a circle. My husband yelled over the music: “You know we’re the only grown-ups out here, right? I think this is just for kids!”

I didn’t care. I danced next to my daughter in the crowd. I had to. Once the horah began, I was in the inner circle, hand-in-hand with friends and family, surrounded by circles of strangers, raising our arms, as we toasted the bat mitzvah girl.

Hava, nagila, hava! 

I took part in all of it, smiling, laughing, celebrating the beautiful, strong, brave, bat mitzvah girl as she cemented herself firmly in the Jewish tradition. The timing of this event will shape her as so much else has in her young life. I was privileged to be a part of it, to show my kids that nothing will get in the way of celebrating our Jewish traditions. Our community is stronger than that and always has been. Haters gonna hate, but we’re not going to be deterred. Not our country, either. One man’s horrific decision will not tear us apart.

I am so grateful for that night last weekend, for the ability to toast all that is right in the world: Love. Compassion. Family. Friends. The indomitable human spirit. Rituals. Tradition. Community.

And, yet again, to never forget.