The Tree Of Life Synagogue’s roots reach far and deep. The tragic, devastating deaths of 11 innocent souls has seared the hearts of many. The shul shooting is not only a horrifying travesty for American Jews, but for all humans regardless of religious affiliation.
Today’s Every Soul Has A Story blog is about Stacey Elias, who is originally from New Jersey, has family in Pittsburgh, and lives in South Florida. She generously gifted and trusted me with her story. I am grateful for her open, honest heart, especially given the tugs and tears it has experienced. This story is also about Stacey’s connection to the fabric of the Tree of Life community. Here is her story:
“I was at a trick or treating event with my kids. I got a text at 11 a.m. ‘There was a shooting in my Shul’ from my sister Amy. I couldn’t believe it. I kept rereading what was on my phone,” Stacey said.
Stacey froze and felt immobilized. This can’t be. How is this possible? After reaching out to the rest of her family, Stacey began to process the unfathomable tragedy her loved ones experienced. She empathized with not only her sister but also all those she’d met during visits to Pittsburgh.
A piece of Stacey’s history hangs on a wall within the Tree of Life building. A quilt, which was installed in 2010, tells the story of the synagogue’s members. Stacey then recalled another time and place in her life.
“It was the beginning of November 2008. I was pregnant with twin boys and was not allowed to travel to Pittsburgh for my niece, Kayla’s, Bat Mitzvah. So instead, I sat at my dining room table assembling the “sushi kits” for Kayla’s favors so a part of us could be there to celebrate with her.”
Four days before Kayla became a Bat Mitzvah, Stacey went into preterm labor and delivered the twins just shy of 21 weeks.
“My husband and I had to make the difficult decision of what to do next. Before we had a chance to process what was happening, we lost Gabriel.”
After Stacey held them, she had emergency surgery to save her own life; she was hemorrhaging from a torn placenta. When Stacey awoke, she was told Raphael passed away, too.
I asked Stacey about why she chose the names Gabriel and Raphiel for the boys. “We named them after angels, which was not the original idea. Gabriel lived only 15 minutes—he was sick. Raphiel was healthy but born too soon. He was not even a pound,” Stacey recounted that painful day as she continued to speak.
“G-d decided for us. Guilt ridden and traumatized, my mind and body shut down for weeks. While my family and the favors were in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life celebrating Kayla, I was in another world completely out of my mind.”
We continued our conversation. I asked Stacey how she dealt with her boys’ passing. Whether old or young, sudden or expected, losing one you love lingers eternally. I asked Stacey if she’d be comfortable sharing how she dealt with the loss of her boys. I felt she could perhaps connect with others who have lost children. (She’d buried her father just a few months before.)
“I remember getting really angry one day. My husband said, ‘Stacey, you need to get it together.’ I said to him, ‘It’s not going to end like this.’ I decided I wasn’t going to quit and give up. I remember saying that over and over again. It was probably at least six weeks later,” she said with fierce determination.
“I finally felt alive again. Before that I felt like a ball in a bed. I would get up every day and then get back in bed. I pumped breast milk. I had like a months worth of milk. It made me feel like I was doing something.”
Rabbi Chuck, who was the spiritual leader at Tree of Life, called all of the pregnant women at Kayla’s bat mitzvah service to the bimah. He blessed them and their unborn babies; he also blessed Stacey to heal and eventually conceive again with a healthy baby.
“Well, it happened and Lexi Samantha was born April 13, 2010. My rainbow baby—she is an absolute miracle. We were unsure she could ever exist. She was here, and I watched her like a hawk around the clock watching her breathe. Sleeping was not an option for me. I needed to keep this baby alive. I prayed to G-d day and night that she would continue breathing when I did finally feel myself falling asleep,” Stacey shared with me. She also now has two other children.
A piece of Stacey’s personal family history adorns a wall of the synagogue. The Tree of Life asked members to make a patch for a quilt that would be displayed in the synagogue. And timing is everything.
“My sister, Amy, could have picked so many meaningful things from her life. The craziest part is that I didn’t even know about the patch until my sister told me last month. Amy made her patch about ME. My biggest struggle in life is on her patch that hangs in Tree of Life. My life is on display for all to see,” Stacey said.
I asked how her Pittsburgh family are handling the havoc and unthinkable, heart wrenching shock of this tragedy.
“My sister and her family are going through hell. I’m just trying to get my sister and niece through this. Hallie (Stacey’s other niece) doesn’t want to go back there ever again—she’s supposed to get married there next year.”
On October 27, 2018, Stacey’s patch saw bullets and blood in a sanctuary that promotes peace and healing. The blue and white piece of blankets her niece had sewn for her two boys, who were gone too soon, are on that patch. A yarmulka from her miracle Lexi baby’s naming and a doll sewn together to represent Lexi’s life and presence in the world are also part of the patch.
Stacey’s boys would have been ten years old this Friday.
“The innocence of the quilt shattered as it saw the unfathomable, the unimaginable. To my boys on their 10th birthday and those 11 pious members, may you find peace whenever you are. I will look up at the stars and pray for a kinder world,” Stacey said.
“You’re accepting and tolerant of people when this happens to you. I am very sensitive to other people’s feelings because of this. My boys are buried down the street from me. They will always be part of me, part of our family. You never get over it,” Stacey said passionately.“It’s not about me. I want to help others. I want people to know they’re not alone in this. Don’t tell me your sorry—I have a good life. I work hard to make my life that way.”
Stacey gave birth prematurely and then in minutes experienced death. Her journey so uncannily mirrors what happened in Pittsburg last month.
“I keep thinking about that somebody came into the shul suddenly and took the lives of 11 innocent people. Their lives are on that quilt, too. They’re all on that quilt together, with my twins,” she said.
“Those who were killed didn’t know the night before would be their last Shabbat dinner. There was no goodbye,” Stacey shared with me, pain coating her voice. The quilt was spared. It is alive but 11 souls were buried. Those who remain are all patching their aching hearts.
I asked Stacey what she’d share with those who are left behind. “This is our history. We aren’t going to end like this. We have to move forward and heal together. We were born to survive as a Jewish people.”