‘I cannot stop shaking.’ South Florida Rabbi’s childhood refuge turns into place of terror

Traveling at the speed of heartbreak, the news of a Saturday shooting attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue that took 11 lives left one South Florida rabbi shattered that a friend was dead and his childhood place of worship — where he was bar-mitzvahed, where his sisters were married, and where his own father presided over services for 23 years — was shrouded in death.

In fact, said Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of the TJC Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, his father Alvin K. Berkun — who still lives in Pittsburgh — may have narrowly escaped death himself during Saturday’s shooting. Ordinarily the elder Berkun would have been attending services at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. But “my mother wasn’t feeling well and asked him to stay home,” Jonathan wrote. “She very well may have saved his life.”

While Alvin stayed home with his wife, a man armed with an AR-15 style rifle and several handguns stormed into the Tree of Life and shouted anti-Semitic slurs as he opened fire, killing 11 people and wounded six others. After a gunfight with police, Robert D. Bowers — a trucker who lived quietly but had a long history of anti-Semitic rants on social media — was arrested and charged with 29 counts, including murder.

Jonathan Berkum’s account came in a long and touching Facebook post. He was not available for comment Sunday night because he joined his father at a prayer vigil at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. “Crying. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he reported via Facebook. “So many hugs. So many tears. And it’s only the beginning.”

The text of his account of what happened Saturday:

My family is safe.

But I cannot stop shaking. I am sad, angry and brokenhearted.

For the last 35 years, my father Rabbi Alvin K Berkun has attended every Shabbat morning service at the Tree Of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. For 23 years, he was the congregation’s rabbi. For the last 12 years, he continued to pray there in retirement. Today, my mother wasn’t feeling well and asked him to stay home. She very well may have saved his life.

This morning in the middle of Shabbat morning services at ATJC Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, Michael Yavner came (in the middle of my sermon about the recent acts of domestic terrorism whose investigation led straight to Aventura) to tell me what we now know to have been a murderous, hateful, anti-Semitic shooting rampage at Tree of Life. This afternoon, I was graciously visited in my home by other members of our synagogue’s Brotherhood, Ari Odzer & Rick Schermer. I am so grateful for their kindness and for the warm embrace of all those in synagogue today, as well as the many others who tried unsuccessfully to reach me this Shabbat.

Tree of Life was my second home, the community in which I grew up and became a Bar Mitzvah. My sisters were married in its sanctuary. I have countless memories of joyful celebrations, as the synagogue was always filled with friends and what felt like an extended family. Tree of Life was, and remains for my father, the center of the Berkun family universe.

I am devastated to learn of the murder of one man in particular, who just a few weeks ago at our synagogue in Aventura, I was remembering fondly together with his parents who were here for a family simcha. We sat together over Shabbat lunch reminiscing how her son used to entertain me at Tree of Life when, as a 10-year-old kid, I never sat still. Now he’s gone. I grieve for him and the others who lost their lives. My heart breaks for them and their families. My prayers go out to the injured and the members of law enforcement who themselves were injured while courageously fighting to protect and save others.

My father, a former Navy chaplain and active Pittsburgh Police Chaplain, threw on his jacket and tended the scene that unfolded a few hundred yards from my childhood home where my parents still live. I cannot imagine how hard that was for him – talking with victims, survivors, and the media. He is not a young rabbi, but he couldn’t stay at home. I wish I could be there with my parents, my home synagogue, and my childhood community.

Hours later, I still cannot comprehend how America in 2018 can be fertile ground for murdering Jew-haters. As in the wake of all recent American tragedies, we will undoubtedly argue over its root cause and what can be done to prevent history from repeating itself. But some things are clear: Gun violence is an American epidemic. Anti-Semitism is statistically rising in America. Politics and public discourse have assumed the vernacular of a street fight. Hatred and racism is alive and well in this country.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Here are five suggestions:

1. Vote. Get politically or communally active.

2. Give back. Someone today has it worse than you. Help him or her make it better.

3. Hug your loved ones. Stop sweating the small stuff.

4. If you are Jewish, come to shul. Show the haters that they will never win.

5. Learn why being Jewish matters. Study a text. Practice praying.

Shabbat is supposed to be a day of peace and synagogues are supposed to be sanctuaries of spirit. In my home and in my heart, that was all shattered today. May the vision in the verse we chant while returning the Torah scroll to the ark be realized soon and in our day:

עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ, וְתֹמְכֶֽיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר.

“It is a Tree of Life to those who hold on to it, and all of its supporters are happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)