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The Delicate Task Of Burying The Tree Of Life Victims


In the weeks since 11 people were shot to death at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the community of Squirrel Hill and the congregations that meet in that synagogue have given the world a display of grace and dignity in the face of tragedy. Rabbi Daniel Wasserman has a particular and profound task. He is one of the people involved with Chevra Kadisha, an Orthodox Jewish burial society that will honor and bury the bodies of those who were killed, even as they must operate in a crime scene. Rabbi Wasserman joins us from Pittsburgh in an interview recorded before the Sabbath. Rabbi, thank you so much for being with us.

DANIEL WASSERMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: These are the bodies of martyrs, aren't they?

WASSERMAN: Yes. In Hebrew, we call them kadoshim - the holy ones - because they were killed solely and only because they were Jewish. Each of those people - to the murderer - represented the entirety of the Jewish people.

SIMON: And in Jewish belief, all remains must be buried with the body. And that is difficult at this crime scene, isn't it?

WASSERMAN: Yes, it is.

SIMON: Can you help us understand what you have to contend with?

WASSERMAN: Well, first and foremost - that it's a crime scene. And so the FBI has been trying to balance their obvious need to collect evidence and map the crime scene and process it in a manner that will be able to be brought to the legal proceedings. And so, as a result, it's anxious because we want to get to this work. The FBI kindly was able to process the smallest of the areas and let us come in on Tuesday. The second difficulty is, as one can imagine - and I certainly am not going to get graphic in this context - there is a lot of blood everywhere. And all of it has to be collected and scrubbed and then, eventually, buried.

SIMON: Rabbi, how are you and the other people doing this profound work doing, feeling, thinking about?

WASSERMAN: Well, I cannot speak for anyone else. I can only answer you the same answer I've given everyone since Saturday night when they've asked how I'm doing. And the answer is, ask me in a few days. And I'll try to figure it out. Right now I'm not - I'm focused on what I and others - there's so many people working day and night on this issue and on other communal issues. It's inspiring to see. But right now I haven't even allowed myself to cry because if I do, I will fall apart. And I will not be able to do what has to be done. As the days go by, it's getting harder and harder for me to push those tears back. So I'm going to probably need a corner soon just to fall apart in. But right now we have work to do.

SIMON: At some point, Rabbi Wasserman, that synagogue becomes a place of worship once again. Will that be difficult for you?

WASSERMAN: Well, that's not my synagogue. I'm the rabbi at one of the other synagogues.

SIMON: Yeah.

WASSERMAN: I don't know what the membership is going to plan to do. You know, it's an interesting thing. I remember when the discussions of Ground Zero came up and what to do and what not to do in its hallowed space, et cetera. And I thought to myself, on the one hand, it's hallowed ground. On the other hand, life goes on. And, you know, Memorial Day in this country, which is a separate discussion - but everybody says, yeah, we're going to shop. And we're going to have barbecues in honor of those who fell because they gave us the right to do it. But on the other hand, sometimes, that's what you've got to say. And I imagine that the membership, after whatever internal redecorating to deal with the trauma of the fact that in that building, in the sanctuary and in other areas of the building, people were murdered, and there they fell, I imagine they will resolve to honor their memory by continuing to make it a place of holiness, a place of peace, a place of love and a place of prayer.

SIMON: Rabbi Daniel Wasserman in Pittsburgh, thanks so much for being with us.

WASSERMAN: Thank you for having me. And God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.