What Happened After the Deadliest Anti-Semitic Attack in American History?


The Tree of Life synagogue shooting and the soul of a neighborhood
By Mark Oppenheimer

On the morning of October 27, 2018, my husband and I were preparing to take our daughter to the pediatrician’s office a few blocks from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Suddenly our phones exploded with the news that there was an active shooter there, and that the Reconstructionist congregation where we spent our great holy days, Dor Hadash (one of three congregations sharing space in Tree of Life), was apparently one of the targets. We broke down in tears that didn’t come entirely from shock and surprise, but exactly from its opposite. I felt the cold, familiar fear of inevitability. As a Soviet Jew who emigrated 40 years ago from a country that never considered its Jews to be truly Russian, I was once again reminded that some things never change: you cannot emigrate anti-Semitism.

But what happens to a Jewish quarter after a shooting that makes national news? This question animates “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood” by Mark Oppenheimer, a poignant and deeply documented account of the Jewish quarter of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of a tragedy. Oppenheimer sets the scene with details that even those familiar with the story might forget. The gunman was particularly outraged by Dor Hadash, a progressive congregation participating in the National Refugee Shabbat, an initiative organized by HIAS. When he invaded the building, he came across a warden and 21 of the more regular members of three congregations, including the smaller New Light, all sharing one roof to keep costs down in a time of shrinking numbers. Most of those preparing for Saturday morning worship were elderly, frail, and in need of community care the most.

Oppenheimer’s propulsive tale spans a full year after the attack as residents of Pittsburghers bury and mourn, stage anti-hate rallies, stage national media assault and a tsunami of “traumatized tourists”: then President Donald Trump, movie stars, out of town clergy, student delegations, New Yorkers, medical clowns and therapy dogs. “I was curious about how people reacted to the consequences of mass violence,” writes Oppenheimer. “When the cameras and the police tape disappeared, what was left behind? “

Oppenheimer paints the portrait of an urban district which has never ceded its Jewish population united to the suburbs. The question of why the “white flight” never happened at Squirrel Hill comes up in interviews with a number of academics, many of whom offer conflicting views. Oppenheimer writes, “Everyone has a theory, which means nobody really knows. He does a great job of bringing the essence of this lovely pedestrian spot to life: kibitz the people bustling between the Jewish Giant Eagle supermarket, the kosher store on Murray Avenue, the Starbucks corner on Shady Avenue, the new bookstores. and secondhand, coffee shops, Asian bakeries and a range of ethnic restaurants, “one of the most diverse places in very white western Pennsylvania”. Beside them are multiple Jewish congregations representing a variety of faiths, nestled among blocks of leaf lined with trees.

How “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” became the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil and what happened after that unfolds with the precision of the best suspenseful stories. We learn how the rabbis whose congregations shared the Tree of Life building were placed in the unwanted spotlight even as they dealt with the trauma of their close encounter with the death and murder of their followers.

Oppenheimer gradually widens the circle of his investigation towards others who, sharing “the common desire to do SomethingPlayed a crucial role in how the event was subsequently commemorated: the ‘amateur crisis worker’ and his individual organization Crosses for Losses, which erected wooden (albeit in ‘stars of David this time) with the names of the victims; the graphic designer who created the ubiquitous “Stronger Than Hate” logo; the high school students who mobilized the popular vigil filled with music and candles which provided photographic iconography for the national media; an Iranian student in Washington, DC, who on a whim started a GoFundMe page that raised millions of dollars for Tree of Life; and the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who devoted the newspaper’s front page to a Hebrew script headline, the first four words of Mourner’s Kaddish, a move that may have hastened his departure from his post.

Not all help was equally welcome, and some came at tremendous emotional and logistical cost to the bereaved. How can a community bury its dead while meeting the accommodation and food needs of New York City’s elite school groups, Baltimore rabbis, holy societies, and other visitors who couldn’t just not stay away? And what about the question of how to distribute the donated millions of dollars fairly among the various congregations involved? And the most intimidating long-term decision of all: what to do with the building itself?

Oppenheimer explains why the site has remained intact since the tragedy. The synagogue’s commitment has not changed much despite good intentions; “Jewish submariners” may still surface for the Great Holy Days, but all the money and national coverage have not attracted more followers. As a local rabbi categorically told Oppenheimer, “Tree of Life members will do anything for the 11 dead except show up for them.” In May this year, the synagogue announced that it had hired architect Daniel Libeskind (also mobilized for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site) to design its new complex. But at the end of “Squirrel Hill,” Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life warns that members find no value in entering the Tree other than as Jewish submarines? “

As a former religious columnist for the New York Times and host of a popular podcast, “Unorthodox,” for Tablet, an online magazine, Oppenheimer is sympathetic to how Jewish culture stands at the crossroads of resistance. proud and self-protective withdrawal, daring activism and self-effacement. The people it highlights are treated with a knowing and affectionate wink, a recognition of earthly. He dismisses criticism of his own role in the journalistic equivalent of traumatic tourism by delving into the deep roots of his father’s family in Squirrel Hill, although he himself grew up in Massachusetts and currently resides in New Haven. , Connecticut, as coordinator of Yale Journalism. Initiative. (For accounts by local writers, see Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji’s anthology “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.)

Three years after the anti-Semitic murders that propelled the Tree of Life synagogue into national consciousness, it is still cordoned off. As I pass it on a daily basis, I often stop at the long traffic light and contemplate the many student art panels that brighten up the wire fence surrounding the desolate site. “Stronger Together” says a poster, and “#heartstogether” and “You Are Not Alone”. As recently as this morning, I dwelled on a work of art that said: “Rebuild together”. Finally, at the corner of Wilkins and Shady, the light turned green.

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