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Can soccer mend a broken heart

The joy of soccer as a salve for all wounds.

“Glad you are out of jail. Can you lead Shacharit*?” So began perhaps one of the strangest emails I have received.

On Wednesday I was arrested for civil disobedience, in an action meant to call attention to the conditions that fomented the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue; those conditions being hate and intolerance coupled with the easy availability of guns in America. I spent the day in Allegheny County Jail.  On Friday, I went to Riverhounds training.

On Saturday morning I will lead morning services at a synagogue three blocks from Tree of Life – a synagogue that now also houses New Light, who used to be in the Tree of Life building, but have now been displaced. On Saturday night, I will be at Highmark to help cover the game for PSN, like usual.

I imagine they will take a moment of silence to commemorate the eleven victims of the shooting. I imagine I will be an emotional mess. I’ve been feeling pretty raw all week – all the normal feelings one would expect like fear, anger, sadness, and frustration. There’s good reason for that.

When I was arrested, Pittsburgh PD officers, who did a laudable and professional job, were instructed by their commanders to roll out the riot squad for our arrest. They used 40 officers to surround 13 peaceful protesters. When they led me away, I was surrounded and marched backwards by no fewer than 12 policemen and women. My fellow protesters included a couple of college students, a middle-aged baseball writer, and a 60-year-old Presbyterian minister. We were likely the least threatening, best-behaved individuals that Pittsburgh PD has dealt with this entire year.

When I learned I’d be leading services, which also means showing up first at synagogue, a year from the day when all the early attendees at Tree of Life were machine-gunned to death by a fanatical white supremacist, I wanted to know if additional security arrangements had been made. I wanted to know if the police would protect me. The answer was ‘we’re not sure yet. Maybe.’ The city can apparently spare twelve cops to cuff a 42-year-old rabbi and soccer writer with two kids – who’s never raised a fist in anger, who has never touched a gun –  but it isn’t clear if they can spare one officer to stand in front of a synagogue that everybody knows is a target for dangerous extremists on a significant day.** It feels lousy.

Meanwhile, all week, there’s been EPL and Champions League and MLS and USL playoff games. There’s been training to attend and questions to ask, and I’m still behind trying to churn out a great article on Tobi Adewole. But I’ve been unable to do the soccer this week. My heart hasn’t been in it. I’m still hurt, and afraid, and frustrated at the world. I’m angry for Tree of Life, but moreso for El Paso and Dayton and Virginia Beach, the mass shootings that have taken place since TOL. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 342 mass shootings in 2019, and 385 people have been killed. There have been 31,887 people killed by guns this year. There are still two months left to go.

This week has been filled with remembrances and anxieties and painful memories for me and for my friends, some of whom are congregants at Tree of Life or New Light or Dor Chadash, the three synagogues affected by the shootings, and some of whom belong to Jewish communities elsewhere in Pittsburgh. We are all reliving trauma in strange and difficult ways, separately, together. And we all need to find different ways for ourselves to move through it, and past it.

I hope I can go to Highmark and throw off the heavy feelings on the day. To watch Kenardo Forbes lace an inch-perfect 40 yard ball. To see Robbie Mertz skin a defender with an in-step cut. To marvel at how Kyle Morton tips a ball just over the crossbar to save a goal. To leap and jump and be carefree with the members of Steel Army *** as they pop yellow smoke for a Riverhounds goal. To see a team that has basically *zero* history of USL success in the post-season, and maybe, just maybe, continue advancing through the playoffs to lift their first trophy in club history.

I hope the game makes me feel better. They say time heals all wounds. I hope soccer can too.


—  —  —  —  —

* the Morning Prayer service – in this case, for Shabbat.

** I was told there will be increased patrols in Squirrel Hill. Which I guess is ok. But personally, I’m looking for something that will serve as a deterrent rather than something that would allow for a rapid response in the event of another shooting.

*** Are you a member of Steel Army? No? They’re awesome. You should join. I gave you the link and everything. Do it now. I’ll wait.

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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