By Gabriel Dweck
When I heard about the tragedy that occurred in Pittsburgh, I felt compelled to travel to the city that I consider my home away from home to attend the vigil, and then to hang Stars of HOPE. Over the course of that terrible Saturday, we slowly made our plans to go on Sunday – it was all I could think about. You might question why a (then)15-year-old boy, who has never even lived in Pittsburgh, felt the need to drop what he was doing and physically go to Pittsburgh. Most teenagers, even adults, when they hear about a tragedy that occurs away from their home, they feel sad, but the main action is sending relief money. To me, however, there was a reason that I needed to go: My heart simply bleeds black and gold.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of all things Pittsburgh – the city, the community and the teams. My birthday cakes were always themed after the Steelers. I attend Steelers games annually, heading from New York towards exit 70-A, downtown, to walk with Steelers Nation across the Pittsburgh bridges, I even have close friends who are my Pittsburgh Saba and Savta. When the time came for my Bar Mitzvah, there wasn’t even a question as to where it would be. It was going to be at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, barely a mile away from Tree of Life. My celebration continued at PNC Park (Pirates), at then-Consol Energy (Penguins), and finally, for Sunday brunch, we viewed the Steelers game from Heinz Field, in the locker room with former defensive end Brett Keisel. This same kind and generous man, last month was a pall-bearer at the funeral for a victim of the Tree of Life shooting.
I always care deeply about tragedies on the news – hurricanes, tornadoes, shootings. But this was personal, it happened to the people of “my” city, to my Jewish people, in the neighborhood where I chose to mark my Jewish adulthood. For my Bar Mitzvah, I donated in memory of Ezra Schwartz, z”l, from my Camp Yavneh. And now, this.
So we quickly painted some Stars of HOPE on that heavy, black Saturday, to bring to Pittsburgh. These simple wooden stars include messages meant to bring hope to those who need it most. The Stars of HOPE organization lets people help in a hands-on way, to encourage and heal others who have undergone a tragedy. The stars create with their message and just by being there, is physical connection to other people, hung publicly so that even the saddest of people, those who are in too much pain to comprehend, can see in front of them a life after the tragedy, so that they can see the living prayers of others who care about them, who will never forget about them, and will never abandon them.
To me, there is such a space, a chasm, between the writing of a check and being able to feel myself actually impacting somebody’s life. The gift of hope, on a star, can be something much more personal. Of course we went to the football game that Sunday, where there was a moment of silence that left many in tears. Then we went to the vigil, where the rain poured down like tears, and finally we took the short trip to the synagogue where the massacre had occurred. Once we saw that we could not go any further than the police barricades, I decided to hang our six Stars of HOPE on that barricade. They had messages such as, “Stronger than Hate;” “Hope;” and “Pittsburgh Strong.” For me, the act of tying those Stars was both intensely personal and totally universal. I wanted to give back hope to the city and to the people that had given me so much in times before, and I wanted to let people with whom I so closely identify know that their pain is shared and that the future can be rebuilt. Like a pebble tossed into the water, the simple act of hanging Stars spread. Pictures appeared in major media outlets across the world, and even in the Penguins tribute video. I went because I couldn’t stay away. I left the stars as a piece of myself, helping rebuild the city, and trying to pull our world back from sorrow. On the way back home, I was still feeling the shock and the fear, but somehow I was also feeling that I had made the world smile just a little bit more.
This is not the only “tragedy” for which I have sent Stars of HOPE to Pittsburgh – I sent some last year for Ryan Shazier. Last December, the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that, like most other Steelers-Bengals, had turned scrappy. Andy Dalton, starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, threw a pass over the middle to his wide receiver, Josh Malone. Star linebacker for the Steelers, Ryan Shazier, went to tackle Malone, jamming his head into the receiver’s back. Moments later, the camera panned to a Steeler wearing the number 50, Ryan Shazier, laying on the ground, not moving. For his entire career as a Steeler I had been a huge fan of him on and off the field, and seeing him injure his spine resonated with me, as I had fractured my spine at the L4/L5 only months before. For some reason, a reason that I myself could not tell you, I was genuinely scared for him as a person. I could have cared less at that moment about the Steelers. I knew deep down inside that what had just happened to him was a life-changing injury. With this, I knew that the only thing I could do was to send him Stars of HOPE, and give him a tangible ray of hope that there could yet be a better future.
At times, I want to turn away from my news feeds. How much pain, loss, deception, and hatred can a single world tolerate? California is ablaze, and so is our political rhetoric. Babies are being ripped away from their mothers at our very own borders. Human rights of all different natures are under malicious assault everywhere. And everywhere there seem to be assault rifles. This is the world my parents’ generation is bequeathing to my generation. Don’t ask me to say thanks. I don’t want to feel helpless. I don’t want to be a by-stander, because in my eyes, by-standers are complicit. So right now, I deliver Stars of HOPE, tangible blessings. But in the next few years I expect to be a totally committed participant in creating a revolution of expectations. My personal Star of HOPE might very well have written on it: “Look out world. Here I come.”
Gabriel Dweck is a Junior at Byram Hills High School, Westchester County, New York. He attended Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy (formerly Bi-Cultural Day School) in Stamford, CT, and is a member of Stamford’s Temple Sinai.