It’s a somber day of remembrance here in Pittsburgh. One year ago, on October 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and opened fire, killing 11 members of the three congregations who were preparing for worship in the building. Several others were wounded and, a year later, are still recovering from their injuries.
As a community, we experienced the horrific shock, sadness and outrage known tragically by so many towns and cities who have been struck by similarly senseless violent acts. The emotional aftermath of the attack remains an indelible part of this city. It has been with us each of these 365 days. It will be with us forever. It’s a hurt and heartbreak that no one ever wants to experience but that too many of us have had to endure.
And yet, through what has been described as Pittsburgh’s darkest day — the day that marked the deadliest attack to date in America against the Jewish community — we saw the strength and resilience of our city and its people. We saw every single faith community respond with generosity and goodwill. We saw strangers embracing each other at the vigils. There was an overwhelming spirit of kindness and love.
There’s something about Squirrel Hill that feels like home to me. It’s my favorite Pittsburgh neighborhood, the one where we would have likely moved to if we had chosen to live within the city. It reminds me very much of Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb near the one where I grew up.
For six years, my daughter attended a support group for kids who have siblings with special needs. They met in Squirrel Hill one Saturday a month, directly across the street from the Tree of Life/ Or L’Simcha synagogue. On those Saturdays, I drove Squirrel Hill’s quiet, tree-lined streets lined with distinctive homes, passing through the business district with the kosher delis and eateries, the bookstore that closes on Saturdays in observance of the Sabbath.
On every one of those Saturday morning drives, I passed people of all ages walking on the sidewalks, headed to one of Squirrel Hill’s dozen synagogues. Families. Single people. Elderly people. A father and his young children.
The trees provided protective cover along their path.
I wasn’t in Squirrel Hill on Saturday, October 27, 2018 but after hearing the horrific news, I couldn’t stop thinking about all those other Saturdays when I would see the families dressed up, the boys and men wearing their yarmulkes, all walking peacefully.
I didn’t know them but I saw them.
I saw them as my husband’s friends of more than 40 years, their families who have become our own, their children who we have seen grow up, even if mostly from a distance.
I saw them as our extended family members whose tables we once gathered around, celebrating Passover and Hanukkah.
I saw them as the friends that I, someone who was raised Lutheran, grew up with in my predominantly Jewish suburb of Philadelphia, whose bar and bat mitzvahs I attended as a teenager.
I saw them as my coworkers, the friends I’ve made with since moving to Pittsburgh eight years ago, the poets and writers in my circle.
And on each one of those Saturday drives through Squirrel Hill, I admit it — I worried about them.
I worried because in today’s world, there’s a vulnerability to professing one’s faith so openly. And because there are too many people who hate people who don’t dress the same or believe the same creed.
I thought the unthinkable— the unthinkable that became reality on October 27, 2018.
Here’s the thing you need to know about Pittsburgh.
Several things, actually.
This is a city of 90 neighborhoods. If you’ve read anything about this tragedy, you’ve likely read that this happened literally in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. The real life Fred Rogers lived a seven-minute walk away.
Maybe it’s because of that legacy, but Pittsburgh is a city with some of the friendliest and nicest people you’ve ever met. People say hello to strangers on the street. They strike up conversations in the grocery store.
It’s not like this in other places.
I notice the difference every single time I’m back in my hometown of Philadelphia. It’s a culture shock, every time.
But like every city and town in America, Pittsburgh has its issues and challenges. Quite a few of them, in fact. Pittsburgh is far from perfect, despite all the accolades that it receives seemingly every other day from this or that Best Of list or publication.
Yet the spirit of this city in the immediate aftermath of October 27, 2018 was very real.
You saw it in the vigils, in the coming together as a community to mourn the heavy, empty heartbreak of losing 11 of our neighbors.
You saw it in the money raised, including thousands of dollars by the Muslim community.
You saw it in the lines of people, waiting patiently to give blood.
A year later, we can say that we lived through our city’s darkest day. But that same day showed us the light — that together, we are stronger than this hatred, even when it lives among us, as it did on that terrible day.
For we are all part of the tree of life, each one of us.
And together we walk — as friends and neighbors — with the stranger who isn’t much different than ourselves.