Remarks at Brandeis Vigil for Tree of Life Victims

Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, delivered the following remarks on behalf of her Ethics Center colleagues at the Oct. 30, 2018, Brandeis campus vigil in memory of the victims at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh three days earlier.

Since the murders in Pittsburgh, I have been thinking about the horrible irony of these senseless deaths taking place in a synagogue identifying itself with the tree of life. How is it that death insinuates itself into the sacredness of a sanctuary devoted to the celebration of life, of lives lived with meaning, and kindness, and tradition, and creativity? How is this possible?

Perhaps we can invoke the symbol of the Tree of Life synagogue to help us find a way forward. Personally, it's a symbol that links me to Jewish liturgy and tradition, and also connects me to all of the people in the world. We can ask ourselves: What is the meaning of the tree of life — its particular cultural resonance, but also its universal image of abundance, of vitality, of creativity, of hope for the future — for all. As the African American spiritual "Ain't You Got A Right to the Tree of Life?" asks: Don't we all have a right to the tree of life? Don't all immigrants have this right? Don't all Jews? All Muslims? All LGBTQ people? All African Americans?

Listen to a beautiful hymn-like version of this song, performed by the Boston Children's Chorus.

I find myself wondering what I might have done, or failed to do, what I might have said, or failed to say, that contributed to the devastating violence inflicted on the people of the Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh. What more could I do, or say, now?

Could we somehow come together to offer more compelling alternatives to people who are vulnerable to recruitment into regimes of hate and terror?

How can we bind ourselves together in a community of caring — for the trees of life — the literal trees and the metaphoric, spiritual trees of life, securing a world of abundance, vibrancy, security and vitality, for our planet, for all people?

I'm so grateful to be part of a community ready to think together about these questions.