The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood
By Mark Oppenheimer
On the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, my husband and I were getting ready to take our daughter to the pediatrician’s office a few blocks down the street from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Suddenly, our phones erupted with the news that there was an active shooter there, and that the Reconstructionist congregation where we spent our High Holy Days, Dor Hadash (one of three congregations sharing space at Tree of Life), was apparently one of the targets. We burst into tears that came not entirely from shock and surprise, but from exactly its opposite. I felt the cold, familiar dread of inevitability. As a Soviet Jew who emigrated 40 years ago from a country that never considered its Jews truly Russian, I was reminded once again that some things never change: You can’t out-immigrate antisemitism.
But what happens to a Jewish neighborhood in the wake of a shooting that becomes a national news story? This question animates Mark Oppenheimer’s “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” a poignant, deeply researched account of the Pittsburgh Jewish neighborhood in the aftermath of tragedy. Oppenheimer sets the scene with details even those familiar with the story might forget. The shooter was particularly incensed by Dor Hadash, a progressive congregation participating in the National Refugee Shabbat, an initiative organized by HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). What he came upon when he invaded the building was a custodian and 21 of the most regular members of three congregations, including the smaller New Light, all sharing one roof to save costs in an era of dwindling membership. Many of the people preparing for Saturday worship that morning were elderly, frail and most in need of community care.
Oppenheimer’s propulsive narrative spans a full year after the attack as Pittsburghers bury and mourn, organize anti-hate rallies, field the onslaught of national news media and a tsunami of “trauma tourists”: then-President Donald Trump, movie stars, out-of-town clergy, student delegations, New Yorkers, medical clowns and therapy dogs. “I was curious to know how people dealt with the aftermath of mass violence,” Oppenheimer writes. “When the cameras and the police tape were gone, what stayed behind?”
Oppenheimer paints the portrait of an urban neighborhood that never ceded its tightknit Jewish population to the suburbs. The question of why “white flight” never occurred in Squirrel Hill comes up in interviews with a number of scholars, many offering contradictory opinions. Oppenheimer writes, “Everybody has a theory, which means that nobody really knows.” He does a lovely job of bringing the essence of this charming, walkable place to life: kibitzing folks bustling between the Jewish-owned Giant Eagle supermarket, the kosher shop on Murray Avenue, the corner Starbucks on Shady Avenue, used and new bookstores, cafes, Asian bakeries and an array of ethnic restaurants, “one of the most diverse places in very white western Pennsylvania.” Alongside them are multiple Jewish congregations representing a variety of denominations, nestled among leafy, tree-lined blocks.
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How “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” became the site of the most deadly antisemitic attack on American soil and what happened afterward unfold with the precision of the best suspense stories. We learn how the rabbis whose congregations shared Tree of Life’s building were pushed into an unwelcome spotlight even while they processed the trauma of their close encounter with death and the murder of their congregants.
Oppenheimer gradually widens the circle of his inquiry toward others who, sharing “the common urge to do something,” were critical to how the event was later memorialized: the “amateur crisis responder” and his one-man organization Crosses for Losses, which erected wooden memorials (though in the shape of Stars of David this time) with the victims’ names; the graphic designer who created the ubiquitous “Stronger Than Hate” logo; the high school students who mobilized the grass-roots vigil filled with music and candlelight that provided photographic iconography for national media; an Iranian college student in Washington, D.C., who, on a whim, started a GoFundMe page that raised millions of dollars for Tree of Life; and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette executive editor who devoted the front page of the newspaper to a headline in Hebrew script, the first four words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, a move that may have hastened his departure from the job.
Not all assistance was equally welcome, and some came at an enormous emotional and logistical cost to the mourners. How can a community bury its dead while also accommodating the lodging and dietary needs of elite New York City school groups, Baltimore rabbis, holy societies and other visitors who simply couldn’t stay away? And what about the question of how to allocate fairly among the various affected cogregations the millions of donated dollars? And the most daunting long-term decision of all: what to do about the building itself?
Oppenheimer explains why the site has remained untouched since the tragedy. Synagogue engagement has not changed much despite good intentions; “submariner Jews” may still surface for the High Holy Days, but all the money and national coverage haven’t attracted more congregants. As a local rabbi starkly put it to Oppenheimer, “Tree of Life’s members will do everything for the 11 dead except show up in their place.” In May of this year, the synagogue announced that they had hired the architect Daniel Libeskind (also marshaled for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site) for the design of its new complex. But at the end of “Squirrel Hill,” Tree of Life’s Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers strikes a note of caution: “Of what value is this task — the endless meetings, the costs associated, the commitment from communal partners — if so many of our members find no value entering the Tree other than as submariner Jews?”
As a former religion columnist for The New York Times and host of a popular podcast, “Unorthodox,” for Tablet, an online magazine, Oppenheimer is sympathetic to the ways Jewish culture stands at the crossroads of proud resistance and self-protective withdrawal, bold activism and self-effacement. The people he highlights are treated with a knowing, affectionate wink, a landsman’s recognition. He wards off critique of his own role in journalism’s equivalent of trauma tourism by delving into his father’s family’s deep roots in Squirrel Hill, though he himself grew up in Massachusetts and currently resides in New Haven, Conn., as the coordinator of the 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 antisemitic killings that thrust the Tree of Life synagogue into the national consciousness, it still stands cordoned off by a wire fence. Since I drive past it every day, I often pause at the long traffic light and contemplate the many panels of student art that brighten the wire fence encircling the desolate site. “Stronger Together,” one poster says, and “#heartstogether” and “You Are Not Alone.” Just this morning, I lingered on one such piece of art that said, “Rebuild Together.” Eventually, at the corner of Wilkins and Shady, the light turned green.