By 10 minutes to 10 on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, 22 people had arrived at their usual Saturday morning meeting place, Tree of Life synagogue in the cozy Pittsburgh neighborhood known as Squirrel Hill. They were preparing, as they did every week, for the start of Sabbath services. That is when an armed intruder entered and started firing, murdering 11 and wounding two more. “I heard him execute my congregants,” Jeffrey Myers, one of the two rabbis who survived the attack, said later.
The shooter also wounded four members of the Pittsburgh police force, all of whom lived, and was himself hit in the exchange of gunfire. It’s unclear whether the alleged gunman (who has been indicted but not yet brought to trial) realized that the hospital emergency room team trying to save him included several Jewish doctors and nurses, as he reportedly shouted, “I want to kill all the Jews!”
This grisly massacre, the deadliest antisemitic assault recorded in American history, is the focus of journalist Mark Oppenheimer’s “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.” His compelling exploration of its impact on the community is by turns searing and compassionate. It is an emotionally draining terrain, flecked with occasional, unexpected pockets of consolation. But in placing this hate crime against our country’s patchwork canvas of faith, politics and violence, Oppenheimer provides a powerful meditation on the changing meaning of community and belonging in an age of disconnection and isolation.
His work is significant in all these ways. Nonetheless, as someone who has lived to tell the tale of a violent antisemitic attack — I was among the 100-some people taken hostage by an armed group of Hanafi Muslims for close to 40 hours on March 7, 1977, in Washington’s B’nai Brith Building, where I worked — I wanted Oppenheimer to dig deeper into the psychological impact and the enduring ache that trauma leaves behind. To this day, for instance, I suffer from nightmares and am triggered, no surprise, by reports of antisemitic attacks such as the one at Tree of Life. Perhaps more important, the fact that so few people today seem to recall the Washington siege underscores the short memory and large blind spot, before this latest wake-up call, so many American Jews maintained to the presence of antisemitism in our country. I wish Oppenheimer had more fully explored why, despite so many repeated reminders, too many still forget.
Then again, the illusion of safety is also part of the American Dream. The book opens with a friendly illustrated map of what Oppenheimer calls the “thriving urban village” of Squirrel Hill, physically situating us amid the streets, synagogues, churches and gathering places that will be mentioned in the pages ahead. What’s most striking is the brief walking distance from one landmark to the next. Just a few blocks from Tree of Life synagogue, for instance, lies the Sixth Presbyterian Church, where Fred Rogers, the acclaimed creator of the long-running PBS children’s television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” worshiped. It’s easy to see how the diverse population of about 26,500 people, spread over a compact expanse of a bit less than three square miles, could get to know the faces, if not the names, of so many of their neighbors.
Oppenheimer himself is no stranger here, his Squirrel Hill family roots dating back to the 1840s, when his great-great-great grandfather was one of the founding members of the area’s first Jewish burial society. In the decades that followed, the area became a thriving Jewish community and remains so today, its 13,000 Jewish residents constituting “the oldest, most stable, most internally diverse Jewish neighborhood in the United States,” Oppenheimer writes. Although he moved away long ago, his familiarity lends his empathic interviews depth and nuance.
Similarly, as the chapters progress, starting with the attack and concluding with its first anniversary, he is consistently attuned to the pulse of the reeling community as it struggles to regain some sense of balance. We follow neighborhood resident Tammy Hepps in the first bewildering hours after the attack, as she takes in the wreckage and gathers with friends to read Psalms in memory of the dead. We meet Lynn Hyde, who in the wake of the shooting decides to convert to Judaism, and we get to know Iranian expatriate Shay Khatiri, who starts a GoFundMe campaign to aid the Tree of Life congregation and improbably raises more than $1 million.
Oppenheimer, who has written extensively about religion in general, and Judaism in particular, for many publications, speaks to rabbis from several streams of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — about matters such as Jewish burial traditions and the declining memberships of all but Orthodox congregations. Among the many examples of the outpouring of concern, caring and hesed, roughly translated as “lovingkindness,” expressed by the entire city, he points to the headline, in Hebrew, that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the day of one of the funerals, with the first four words of the traditional Jewish prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish.
He also introduces us to the “trauma tourists” who intrusively come to gawk. More welcome are the well-meaning souls who travel unbidden to Squirrel Hill on self-directed missions to ameliorate grief through such gestures as building memorials to the dead or bringing trained comfort dogs to help heal those in mourning.
Oppenheimer also poses the question that inevitably echoed through Squirrel Hill from the first report of the attack, writing, “When did it begin, this hatred of Jews?” His crisp summary in one brutal page of thousands of years of virulent, global antisemitism aptly provides the broad historical backdrop for the 2018 bloodbath. It could, though, have also provided the opportunity to probe how and why, in recent decades, the hatreds embedded in antisemitism and white supremacy seem to have become increasingly intertwined, giving an even wider berth to acts and expressions of bigotry against any minority considered “other.”
Witness the chilling fact that the Squirrel Hill shooter evidently had focused his crosshairs on the synagogue because it planned to participate in the National Refugee Shabbat program sponsored by HIAS (a nonprofit organization originally known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). Using the rhetoric of contemporary white-supremacist groups, the alleged killer had posted on social media hours before his attack: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
No wonder it therefore struck many in Squirrel Hill as an affront when President Donald Trump — who had refused to denounce the white nationalists at the 2017 Charlottesville rally and during whose term hate crimes against Jews and other minorities surged — scheduled a visit to the synagogue. On Oct. 30, the day of that visit, Tammy Hepps, for one, held a sign that read, “MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD IS NO PLACE FOR HATE.” But others disagreed. Trump supporter Tova Weinberg, for instance, went out of her way to antagonize protesters, engaging them in conversation only to insult them.
That political divide was still apparent on the first anniversary of the shooting. When Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who, like Myers, had survived the attack, made an ardent plea for gun control during his memorial address at the city’s large Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, many applauded, but “others crossed their arms, glowering.”
Were the fissures that split the community so deep that not even shared grief could help them heal? In that, alas, Squirrel Hill may not be so different from the rest of America. I cannot help but wonder if we are doomed to forget because we cannot even agree on what we need to remember, and why.
The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood
320 pp. $28.95
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