The most solemn day in Judaism, Yom Kippur, was a grim reminder that the 11 Jews gunned down during morning prayer at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue had not had their names written in the Book of Life last year. Instead, as Jews everywhere gathered earlier this month in synagogues fortified with security, those 11 names being read around the world, a global eulogy.
They died last Oct. 27 because an anti-Semitic wild man broke into their house of worship. This was Squirrel Hill, my home, an urban community in Pittsburgh that is the center of the city’s Jewish life.
Here, Orthodox Jews walk to services when dusk falls. The sign in the window at Murray Avenue Kosher instructs each Friday what time to light Shabbat candles.
We have a kosher grocery store. A Jewish Community Center with a robust schedule of fitness classes.There is Pinsker’s where you can buy a talit, a prayer shawl, or just the right Hagaddah for Passover. There is a new mikvah, a ritual bath, a block away from Starbucks.
I live three blocks from Tree of Life and I am not Jewish. In fact, I was steeped in the strong tea of Catholicism from kindergarten to college. But Judaism became my spiritual and cultural language as I married a Jewish man and, 16 years ago, moved to Squirrel Hill.
I listened and learned enough to know that my younger daughter made the right choice when she announced she wanted to be a rabbi. It is the place where she began learning the faith, became a late Bat Mitzvah,. and realized that Jews, overall, fit what she was looking for — community.
Her ordination from Hebrew Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati is coming up in May.
The Tree of Life tragedy is literally hard to ignore. The building stands, now with a gallery of 101 pieces of art hung on the wind fence in front of it. Services are held in a neighboring synagogue, though the congregation announced on Friday that it intended to eventually return to the building and remake it as a kind of community center that includes space for worship, memorials, exhibits and more.
Whatever happens in the building, the mourning will be forever for the 11 who died in there during Shabbat services.
Those of us who saw the military-like teams marching knew this was the end of innocence—if there ever was any.
‘There Was a Massacre Going On’
It was a Saturday. People were doing what people do on Saturdays. Drop off kids, drop off dry cleaning, do some grocery shopping. No one was thinking about the observant Jews at morning prayer.
I was several blocks away, finishing an exercise class at the JCC. I stepped out onto the street and realized everyone was frozen, there on the sidewalk. Something was not right. In fact, something was dreadfully wrong. This was not a domestic dispute, a store theft, a fire or an accident.
There was a massacre going on.
The high pitch of sirens. Police in unmarked cars at high speed, almost on the sidewalks. Ambulances almost tipping, sharply rounding corners. Barricades thrown up to keep cars away from the synagogue at Shady and Wilkins.
Robert Bowers was in the building, where three congregations shared space, shooting from three handguns and an AR-15, and then surrendering.
Bowers, we now know, is part of a growing fraternity who live on Internet hate sites that encourage carnage— of Jews, Muslims, and immigrants—and then celebrate it.
Squirrel Hill and Tree of Life now had the distinction of attracting hordes of media for all the wrong reasons. As a former reporter for the Washington Post, I understood their needs, and squired some of them around as they filmed and asked questions. I told reporters that this was a special place and it had all these wonderful things.
We had become the address for the largest slaughter of Jews in American history.
‘As Safe As A Place Can Be’
When we moved from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh in 2003, Squirrel Hill seemed a safe place, or as safe as a place can be. There were always people on the streets. The houses were as old as the trees that towered over them. The place was infused with family, tradition and synagogues everywhere.
Now I know—as we all know—that every place Jews gather is a danger zone. The rise of anti-Semitism and its expression around the world has forced fear and dread among Jews and we who love them as it has for centuries.
Synagogues—at least those that can afford it— now need to be hardened with bimah buzzers, security surrounding the building, and, perhaps, key fobs to open the doors. The attempt to massacre Jews praying inside a synagogue in Halle, Germany, during the Torah reading on Yom Kippur this year failed only because the entrance door could not be broken by bullets or explosives. The gunman there tried both and moved on to killing two people outside.
Her Sermon Was About Guns and Violence
That same day, a young student rabbi stood on a bimah in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where 11 congregants had hired her to do high holiday services. She had no cantor, no buzzers, or any way to protect herself or the congregants who sat in front of her.
That student rabbi was my daughter, Natalie, and her sermon was about guns and violence.
I worry about guns, violence — and her. I expected at least a pause from her when I expressed my fears, but Natalie simply said that if safety was the issue, it would not change her mind about the job ahead.
At a memorial service for the Tree of Life victims shortly after the shooting, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Natalie read from a poem she wrote that mirrored what all of Squirrel Hill was feeling, Jew and non-Jew alike:
May their lights never be extinguished
May they shine on us always
and illuminate our way
As we begin to find light amid
The darkness of our tragedy.
Cindy Skrzycki, a former Washington Post columnist, is senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and visiting scholar at McGill University. Her husband, David Shribman, was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time of the shooting, and wrote this Forward essay for the anniversary.