Why a Rabbi From the Tree of Life Synagogue Still Has Hope

Dahlia Lithwick speaks with Chuck Diamond about the horrific Oct. 27 shooting and how the community has helped restore itself.

A hand reaching down to lay a flower on the memorial.
A visitor lays a flower on the makeshift memorial in front of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Nov. 3. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

On the Nov. 3 episode of Slate’s Supreme Court podcast Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with Rabbi Chuck Diamond about the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Diamond was the rabbi at Tree of Life for seven years. Dahlia was joined for this episode by her son Coby, and the three of them discussed the generosity of the Squirrel Hill community, the healing process over the past week, and how to talk to kids about the tragedy.

A transcript of their discussion, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, is below.

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi, and welcome to this special edition of Amicus. I’m Dahlia Lithwick. I cover the courts and the law for Slate. This is an off week for us, but it felt like there was something to say about the events last week in Pittsburgh, and so we have brought in Rabbi Chuck Diamond. He was the rabbi at the Tree of Life synagogue for seven years and actually in the building at an affiliated group for two years before. So nine years at the synagogue. Chuck, thank you for joining us this morning.

Chuck Diamond: I’m glad to, Dahlia.

Lithwick: I should add two caveats, one is that I’ve known Chuck since I was 10 years old. He was, I think, the first person who met me when I got off the bus at summer camp my first time at sleep-away camp, and I stayed in no small part because he was a rabbi who juggled. My kids both know Rabbi Chuck, and I should note that my son Coby, who’s 15, is in the studio with me.

So, Chuck, this is your community. I think you knew 10 of the 11 victims.

Diamond: I knew nine of the 11 fairly well, didn’t really know the other two so well.

Lithwick: This week for you has just been one funeral after another, and trying to comfort the wounded, and trying to be with the grieving families. I guess my first question is, how are you?

Diamond: Well, thank you for asking. It’s been, obviously, a real difficult week. It seems like one long day. We’ve been going from one funeral to the next, to the next. Today is the last funeral, for Rose Mallinger, 97 years old, a beautiful soul, wonderful person, wouldn’t hurt a fly, very active for 97 years old. Her daughter was with her in shul. She would come every week and be there on time. It was a joy having her as a congregant, to be her rabbi. I’ve known her son, Alan, since kindergarten. Sort of the special nature of our Jewish community. Tragic, and I will miss Rose so, so very much.

I sort of have become the unofficial spokesman for the Jewish community. The rabbis who are involved are doing such a wonderful job, but they’re not only recovering from the trauma of having been there and having escaped with their lives, and, in some cases, having to watch their congregants being executed within earshot, they are so busy officiating at the funerals and comforting their mourners. I give them a lot of credit. So I’ve been able to fill. But it’s been one thing after the other, and in addition, I have a bar mitzvah tomorrow. I want to make that as joyous as I can for my student.

Lithwick: Squirrel Hill, the picture that’s been emerging in the press, Rabbi Chuck, is of this kind of—it was quite literally Mister Rogers’ original neighborhood. We’re hearing that it’s just this … I mean, in addition to being this landmark Jewish neighborhood, also just a place of settling massive amounts of new refugees in the last few years. It sounds like my dream, like my Sesame Street dream of America. Can you tell us a little bit about the rest of the community?

Diamond: Sure, and Dahlia, I’m sort of the Big Bird of the community, just to give you an idea. It is a wonderful community. I’m just so happy that I grew up here. I always wanted to come back. It’s indeed a very special community. It’s been fairly stable for maybe going on a hundred years now. It’s known as the Jewish community in town. We’ve always had the kosher food and bakeries. On Shabbat, you’ll see people walking to shul. I always said I don’t care which direction you’re going to, what synagogue you go to, as long as you’re going to shul on Shabbat. The support from within the Jewish community, the orthodox rabbis, the conservatives, the reform and reconstructionist rabbis … I have a lot of respect for my colleagues. We all get along. We talk about ourselves as “we.” It’s a beautiful thing.

Not only that, Pittsburgh is a wonderful place to raise your kids. There are Jews and non-Jews alike … I can’t tell you the number of people who stopped me on the street this week—“You know, I’m not Jewish, Rabbi, but let me give you a hug.” Or “I love you” or “Thank you.” That’s what helps us get through this tragedy. The beauty of our community. It was Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. Some people have called me the Jewish Mister Rogers, which is such a great compliment.

Also, the support from around the country has been the same, from Jew and non-Jew alike, and really from around the world as well. So we are very comforted by that and appreciate them.

Lithwick: You had posted on Facebook, I think, the other day. You had said the media trucks are starting to leave. The tents are folding up. The story feels like it’s moving on. I wonder if that’s a relief to you a little bit, or if there was something that was energy-affording about having all that attention. In other words, is it better or worse for you, now that folks are turning their eye to the next thing?

Diamond: Well, it’s an interesting question. The media has taken such a hit from various people, which I think is so unfair. They’re not the enemy of the people. They’ve been gracious. They’ve been kind. They’ve been comforting. I’ve made it a point when I’ve appeared to thank them on air for what they do. I think it’s very important. Somebody, one of the gentlemen who happened to be late for services—he was caught in traffic with his college-age son—he commented on Facebook that he felt like they were being a little too intrusive and he sort of resented seeing people talking about his synagogue that weren’t even members.

I explained to him that this was so important, that there were so many people out there around the country and around the world who are concerned, and they need to hear what’s going on. It’s comforting for them. So I think the media has played an important role in this. I congratulate them on the way they’ve handled it.

But there’s a news cycle, and we move from one thing to the other. The week before, it was the bombs, and now focusing on the election, and other various things. So it’s a relief to me in a way, just because physically, I tried to answer all the demands from all the media, from around the world. We’ve been focusing on the funerals this week. The focus should be on the victims and their families. It’s a tough time after the shiva to get on with our lives and back to some sort of normalcy. But there is no normal, I have to say. So this is the time we really need to be there for the families, and the mourners, and for the city, as we start to heal.

Lithwick: Rabbi Chuck, I think Coby has a question he wants to ask you.

Diamond: OK, Coby.

Coby: So today is Friday, and that means that today is the start of Shabbat. I know that in the next couple of days, a lot of children are going to be rolling into synagogue for services and Sunday school and whatever they may be coming for.

Diamond: Right.

Coby: But I think those of them that have been informed of this are going to be really scared. So I’m just wondering what are you going to say to them and what are people going to say to them to kind of comfort them?

Diamond: Yeah. I think there are different reactions, Coby. I’ve talked to some high school kids, and it’s almost like some kids your age have become desensitized to these tragedies because they seem to happen so much. You know? There are new terms that you guys are used to, like lockdown. The next day after the tragedy, there was a prank call to one of the grade schools here and they had to go on lockdown. So I do think it’s impacted a lot of kids. I do think some kids just sort of don’t know what to do with it because it just happens so much.

When I was a kid, they used to have drills for nuclear attacks, right?

Coby: Yeah.

Diamond: And we used to hide under the desks and I always used to think like, yeah, this is going to do a lot of good, hiding under the desk for a nuclear attack. Now you guys are dealing with a whole different world. Some of you go to schools with metal detectors and there’s a fear … you don’t feel safe in the school, which really should be a sanctuary for you. This was an attack on our sanctuary, and a sanctuary should be a place where you’re able to feel safe.

So what do you say to the kids? I think you say to the kids that most often we live in a good world, in a safe world, but we have to be there for each other and we have to do good things. And there are a lot of good people in this world, and there’s hope for the future. That’s the message I think I would give. It’s difficult, though, you’re right, but we have to be there for the kids and we have to be aware that some kids express it in different ways. Some are … you can tell that they’re worried and concerned and sad, and some kids sort of keep it inside. So we have to be there for them and we really have to be there for everybody. Thank you for your question, Coby.

Coby: Yeah, no problem.

Diamond: Is that helpful to you?

Coby: Yes, it was.

Lithwick: Coby and I were in Charlottesville when the Nazis were there a year ago. At the time, I think there was this feeling like, OK, this is a bad thing, but it’s a one-off and now it’s over. And then now, I think this is this other bad thing and now it’s over. One of the things that my other son asked me this week is, has it always been this way? What’s different seems to be the discourse and the language, and things that are being said openly and flagrantly. It hasn’t always been this way, right?

Diamond: Well, a couple things that are different. One is we have 24-hour news and the world is a smaller place. So when something happens around the world, we all experience it. So that’s one thing, I think, that is different.

I think, also, that we live in a time now when the rhetoric has gotten out of control and that some of our leaders have failed to … Words are very important. I believe the response to Charlottesville was lacking by our leaders. I think that emboldens people to act out. So I think anti-Semitism has always been there, but a lot of times it’s under the surface. Now people are emboldened to express their hate in different ways more publicly.

This was one person who acted here in Pittsburgh. But it was hate combined with guns, and that’s a terrible combination. We need to do something about the proliferation of guns in this country. Look, I don’t have a problem with people owning a gun, but I see no use for an assault rifle whose only purpose is to kill people. I don’t know why they’re legal. I just don’t. Nobody can explain that to me. So we have a lot of work to do, and hopefully the next generation can lead us, as the wonderful kids in Parkland have done.

So there’s hope, I think, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I think our politicians have to get off their rear ends and do something. I think there’s a middle ground and I think we have to start working together.

Lithwick: I actually just interviewed Emma González, one of the Parkland kids. And she said, “I have hope. I have hope.” And your Facebook post Friday morning said, “These are things that I have hope about, I’m grateful about.” You’ve talked about the unbelievable support across the faith community, the first responders. Tell us something that has given you hope in this probably most catastrophic week that you’ve seen as a rabbi in Pittsburgh. But what’s giving you hope right now?

Diamond: It’s interesting. The night before, I guess the Friday night, I was so depressed. I said to my wife, “I just can’t take this anymore.” All the news, and what’s going on, and the hate, and the divisiveness in our country, treatment of refugees, and the list goes on and on and on, as you know too well, Dahlia. And then this happens the next day.

But what has given me hope … and I’ve been in touch with Parkland, I have to say, and survivors of Las Vegas, and thinking about maybe something we can do together to try to make a difference. What’s given me hope is there’s so many good people out there around the world, and I’m hearing from them. On the streets of Pittsburgh, my Facebook posts and the reactions to them. I think I’ve heard from every person I’ve ever known. The love and the support from friends and neighbors and strangers has been overwhelming to me.

I’ve gotten a few pieces of hate mail, I have to tell you, but not many. Very small percentage. That gives me hope. I think there’s good people. The teens of Parkland gave me hope. Your kids give me hope. There’s a lot to be thankful for. Even at this tragic time, we have to consider that. I spoke to some of the survivors, or the people who didn’t make it to synagogue, who are feeling guilty. I said, “You’ve been given the gift of life. Appreciate that and make the most of it.” All the first responders and the police department and everybody who’s been involved on all levels have just been wonderful. We live in a good community. There are good people in the world. We just have to do good things for other people. If we do that I think we’ll end up being OK.