A Year After the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, I’ve Found Surprising Comfort in Prayer

I was not prepared for the transformative effect that prayer would have on my mental state.

We live in a noisy world. And in order to function in this world, I’ve found that I — and I’m sure many others, too — have, without even realizing it, instinctually learned to silence the noise in my own mind in order to just get through the day. At a young age, compartmentalizing became habit, and then unconscious compulsion.

I’ve been lucky, though. The things I’d compartmentalized were more or less minor — everyday stressors about school, work, or disagreements I’d gotten into with family and friends. Admittedly, it would have been better for my mental state and general wellbeing if I had dealt with them, but compartmentalizing was feasible.

Then, last October happened. And everything changed.

The attack on my home community hit me hard. Anyone who’s talked to me for five minutes knows that not only am I a Jew, I’m a Pittsburgh Jew. Squirrel Hill and the Pittsburgh Jewish community isn’t only where I’m from; it’s a deeply entrenched part of the person I have grown and continue to grow to be. What happened last October, when a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered 11 Jewish members of my community who were there to pray, shook me deeply and shattered certain assumptions of safety that I had not only taken for granted, but indeed had internalized to my core.

And, try as it might, my brain couldn’t compartmentalize this tragedy. It was too big to stay out of sight in any of those figurative boxes my mind had built to tuck things away.

I was lucky, then, that I found myself in a position in which I was also engaging in formalized Jewish prayer on an almost daily basis — sometimes multiple times a day. This was, like so much else, unplanned. As a returning student at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, I found myself acting as one of the coordinators for the Traditional Egalitarian minyan (prayer group). I therefore felt I had an obligation — a communal one, if not a religious one — to show up every day, especially because there are certain prayers (including the Mourner’s Kaddish) that you are traditionally only able to say with a group of at least 10 people praying together.

There’s something grounding in the knowledge that you are needed, that the simple act of being physically present can have a transformative effect on the people around you. In the days right after the attack, I went to minyan both out of perceived obligation and also because the thought of sitting home alone was overwhelming. But I was not prepared for the transformative effect that the prayer itself would have on my mental state in the weeks and months following the attack.

When my brain tried and failed to stash my feelings of grief and pain and rage and fear out of sight, the act of prayer gave me an opportunity to allow myself to feel them, and really stew in them, if only for a moment — and thus begin the process of working through them.

Rav Kook, a prominent 19th and 20th century rabbi, writes about prayer as an opportunity to check-in with oneself and as a way to clear spiritual “battering stones” around the soul. During formalized prayer with my minyan, I felt this for what was perhaps the first time, particularly during the Silent Amidah. In the quiet that surrounded me, I found the space to de-compartmentalize those overwhelming emotions in a contained, safe way.

Sometimes I used the traditional words. Other days, I focused on only a single verse in the siddur (prayer book). Occasionally, I even devised my own words. And in some instances, I merely let myself stand in the quiet. Because I was in a space where the only “function” I needed to fulfill was reflection and yearning, I was able to open up those mental boxes.

This was helped, I think, by the fact that these moments of reflection were finite amounts of time. At most, our minyan met three times a day — morning, afternoon, and evening — and more often, we met only in the afternoons. This allowed me boundaries; I knew I had a set amount of time to focus on the emotions, and therefore I was less afraid of drowning in them. I could feel without reserve during prayer, and then continue to live out my daily life once we were through.

The community in which I prayed was also crucial. I was surrounded by people who made me feel safe to be vulnerable. Many days, during or at the end of the service, a friend would see me crying and hand me a tissue. No words were ever spoken. They never needed to be. For the first time, in a concrete, experiential way, I understood why the Mourner’s Kaddish is only traditionally said with 10 or more people: It’s easier to go to that place of grief knowing that there are people to rally around you, to pull you back to yourself if you need them to do so.

It’s been a year since the shooting, and I’m not in Jerusalem anymore. And while the grief and pain feels less urgent, the insight that I can continue to use prayer to work through it — and to work through whatever struggles appear in the course of my life — remains one of the most powerful gifts I’ve found in Jewish tradition. It’s one that I’m going to carry with me as I think about the community I want to build, and the life I want to lead.

One of the last sections of the traditional Amidah liturgy is the Hoda’ah (“Thanksgiving”), an expression of gratitude for the miracles of daily life. And, in this moment, when I think about prayer and the people who have helped facilitate it for me over the past year, that’s how I feel: like singing with gratitude.

Image by Marissa Roer

Dani Shira Plung

Dani Shira Plung is a writer and poet recently returned to the States after living in Jerusalem for two years. When she’s not contemplating the Jewish issues of the day, most of her headspace is devoted to thinking about cartoons.

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