This American Jewish community is ‘the heartbeat of Squirrel Hill’

The Post-Gazette's executive editor gives voice to a community built on tolerance and grit.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic
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National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson arrived at the Tree of Life synagogue around midnight Tuesday, October 30, 2018, and found a young man, Isaac, sitting on the ground. A Pittsburgh resident, like Lynn, he too had been worshipping nearby on Saturday when the shooting happened.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic
This article was updated with additional images on November 1, 2018.

It happened here.

We knew it could happen here when we learned that nine people were killed in 2015 in the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We knew it could happen here when we learned that six were killed in the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in 2017.

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The Tree of Life synagogue is roped off with police tape. This is the place of worship where 11 people were killed by Robert Bowers on Saturday, October 27, 2018. The site has become a community memorial to give voice to the senseless hatred and violence.

The latest here, in late October, was Squirrel Hill, home of a dozen synagogues and for more than a century and a half not only the spiritual center of Pittsburgh Judaism but also, along with New York’s Lower East Side and Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue, one of America’s vital centers of Jewish identity since the beginning of the machine age.

Here—amid the kosher establishments on Murray Avenue, the Judaica shops on Forbes Avenue, the jeweler closed on Saturdays but open on Sundays, one of the few Dunkin’ Donuts in the country, and almost certainly the only Italian ice emporium regularly inspected by rabbis, and the landmark clocktower with Hebrew letters at the center of Squirrel Hill—reigned a profound sense of security. It was, in the argot of the contemporary campus, a safe place.

There was no escaping that, in the eternal mix of irony and tragedy that is the human story, the anti-Semitic rampage at Tree of Life synagogue has inflicted deep wounds on perhaps the least anti-Semitic city in the country.

Here—by the kosher grocery and the kosher restaurant and the kosher-style deli, and where the knotted fringes of tzitzit are familiar features of the garments of the Orthodox who mingle on the streets with secular Jews and Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim neighbors—it didn’t require social media for word to spread. The news of what would be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history was in the air, along with the shock and the shrieks of pain, the grief and the gruesome details, the worst of which were confirmed within hours.

You could hear it in the sirens that broke the stillness of the morning and shattered the serenity of the Saturday routines at the cleaners, at the shoe store, at the hotcake house. No need, of course, in a place like this to identify the name of the cleaners, the shoe store, the hotcake house. Everyone knows them, just as they know the names of almost everyone along Forbes Avenue at any time of the day.

And precisely because everyone knows everyone around here—the one immutable Squirrel Hill truth that is at once irritating and comforting—the news that raced down the street as noon approached Saturday was about a rare stranger in this peaceful place: dread.

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And there was confusion, but no clarity, about what this meant, and whether the toxic political and cultural environment caused this, or merely reflected it.

Dread that someone you knew was in morning prayers marking the beginning of a baby’s new life.

Dread that the police officers who sped to the scene—there were scores of them, almost as if it were a police funeral, for it was clear that soon there could be one—were in danger.

Dread, too, that our country, our city, our neighborhood, our lives have come to this, and that this type of violence, rooted in hate, had come here.

Before long the whole tragic scene was on television, and there was David Johnson, the WPXI anchor, on the sidewalk with a microphone and a camera crew. He lives here in Squirrel Hill, mere blocks away. On the scene, too, was Ken Rice, the KDKA anchor, and his crew. He and his wife, Lauren, took their pre-marriage lessons at the temple just down the street.

Then there also was the downtown businessman, a Squirrel Hill resident since he was three days old; everyone knows his name, too, though he didn’t want it used in this account. He was in the Five Points Bakery, hard by the synagogue. He was there to buy a morning muffin for his wife. But the line was too long, so he headed back home, down Wilkins Avenue and toward Fifth, and this is what he saw:

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Pittsburgh's Police Station in Zone 4 on Northumberland Street was the first on the scene when the shooting began. The entire community showed their gratitude with letters and food. Appreciation and thank you notes from the children are pinned up along the wall.

“There were four, maybe six officers, and they rushed into the synagogue with guns. Then I saw the officers start to fire and back out and I saw what looked like gunfire from the synagogue. And I saw an officer holding his arm being escorted out. And the next thing I knew there were cops all over the place.”

The very next thing he did was call me, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, because he knew I lived only three blocks away from the synagogue and he knew this was news of the worst but most important kind.

And soon Rabbi James A. Gibson of Temple Sinai, the Reform synagogue that is nearly a neighbor of Tree of Life, was on the phone. “We’re stunned that the peace of Shabbat was destroyed by murderous intent and act,” he said, the words spilling forth in a Niagara of disbelief unusual for a man of devout belief. “We cannot comprehend what happened. It’s a tragedy for us all, and especially for those who are victims.”

This was, to be sure, a 21st-century event, with all the trademark elements: Gunfire in a house of worship. Text messages flying at the speed of bullets. (Mine came from Saskatchewan and Alberta and Ontario, from a nephew at Yeshiva University in New York, and brothers and my sister from Boston's North Shore and from neighbors the next street over.) And of course: Confusion, and then clarity, over how many dead, how many wounded.

And there was confusion, but no clarity, about what this meant, and whether the toxic political and cultural environment caused this, or merely reflected it.

Community center for all faiths

If the story of the American Jewish community is an extraordinary tale of resistance and resilience, anguish and achievement, then the story of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is even more remarkable. It was here that immigrant Jews built a home during gritty Industrial Revolution days, that Reform Judaism planted perhaps its deepest roots anywhere, and that—perhaps alone among American cities Jewish life did not migrate to the fresh, clean suburbs but remained urban, plucky, streetwise.

Jewish life in Pittsburgh is planted here, in Squirrel Hill, where the Tree of Life building at the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues houses three congregations, each practicing a distinctive strain of their shared faith.

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Twins, Ronna Wedner Levin (right) and her sister, Robin Exler (left) have prepared most of the flowers for the funerals. The flower shop was opened by their father, Norman, almost 80 years ago. The entire family goes to Tree of Life synagogue.

Here the parade to prayer of observant Jews down Wightman Street every Friday just before sundown is unremarkable.

Here, last year, David Zubik, the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, and Aaron Bisno, the rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, boarded a plane together at Pittsburgh International and led a trip to Rome and Jerusalem. They called it the Pursuers of Peace Pilgrimage. Nobody thought that was the least bit remarkable. In recent weeks, when Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, Bishop Zubik’s predecessor at the Diocese of Pittsburgh, came under fire in the church abuse scandal, some of the deepest expressions of sadness about his role came from Pittsburgh Jews who remembered him as a constant presence in their pews.

Here the Jewish Community Center is actually the community center, frequented by men and women of all faiths, 40 percent of them not Jewish. “We will stay to our regular schedules as much as possible,” Brian Schreiber, the center’s president, said that Saturday evening.

Here Jewish and Protestant clergy swapped pulpits amid the 19th-century soot of the Industrial Revolution. Here, in the year after the 1892 Homestead steel strike, Rosh Hashanah services were conducted in the club room of the volunteer fire company’s engine house, down the street from where union activists and Pinkerton agents engaged in one of the bloodiest labor battles in U.S. history. Here, in 1885, the tensions between identity and assimilation took their form in perhaps the most important document of Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Platform.

Here the story is told of how a Protestant minister marked the founding of Tree of Life by attending the ceremonies in 1883, and then marked it again a quarter-century later when the congregation moved to a new venue.

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Here the Jewish Community Center is actually the community center, frequented by men and women of all faiths, 40 percent of them not Jewish.

Here the streets were clogged with mourners hours after the shooting for a post-massacre vigil, organized in large measure by high school students. The mystery was why one of the most prominent rabbis around was missing. He was attending a wedding; Jewish tradition dictates that joy supersedes tragedy.

Here, at the same spot, the roads were clogged on the first day of the funerals, people standing in solemn respect as the hearses passed by the streets where, as Lerner and Loewe would put it, enchantment this day did not pour out of every door.

Here livery and boarding stables, and a school with five classrooms, along with the mansions of the Mellons and Queen Anne and Colonial Revival homes, made for a model community across the decades and generations. There was, of course, a settlement house, and a Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and a Jewish Home for the Aged. Now that the community is completely settled, there are multiple Jewish homes for the aged, and aged Jews in their own homes.

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Eleven candles have been pasted on the windows of the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill to represent the 11 lives that were taken on October 27, 2018. The library overlooks the usually busy intersection that is deserted on Friday, November 1, 2018, due to the funerals of the victims.

Here, even a century and a half later, there were priests and rabbis and ministers and more. Here there were reform movements aplenty. Here there were civic associations. Here there now is an active Squirrel Hill Historical Society, examining it all, drinking in the moment.

Here Theodore Dreiser wrote for a local newspaper. Here Willa Cather also wrote for a local newspaper and, in the house next door to mine, wrote the luminous novel O Pioneers!, which includes the insight that “we are not all made alike.” Here one of the pioneers of the gay-marriage movement, Evan Wolfson, Class of 1974 at Taylor Allderdice High School, grew up. Here one of the pioneers of space flight, astronaut Jay Apt, a veteran of four Shuttle missions, was born and raised his two daughters.

Here, quite literally in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, lives Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive, and, a field goal away, Mike Tomlin, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who began his press conference after that week’s football triumph to assert he was a “member of the Squirrel Hill community” and that “words cannot express how we feel.” The coach passes Tree of Life every weekday when he takes his children to the public school where, two generations ago, the historian David McCullough first was inspired with a love of history.

Here Annie Dillard grew up, and in her memoir said that, “We children lived and breathed our history—our Pittsburgh history, so crucial to the country’s story and so typical of it as well.” The epigraph to that volume is a quote from Psalm 26, which speaks of “the beauty of thy house and the place where dwells thy glory.” The book’s title is An American Childhood.

Here there was enough serious music written to permit WQED, the local classical music station, to devote an entire program to memorial pieces written by Squirrel Hill residents.

Here the local politicians take out new-year’s advertisements at Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish newspaper because not to do so would be unseemly.

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Eli Vogel was traveling home to New Jersey and felt compelled to stop to sing his prayers at the memorial. He stood in the rain for an hour singing. As he packed up his guitar, he said he was singing for the victims lost and also for everyone—for all brothers and sisters. Then he began to cry and said, "I have lived in Jerusalem where violence is very close and I had to ask myself—am I safer here or there? And I have to say I am safer there. At least there I know who my enemy is."

“We are the heartbeat of Squirrel Hill,” said Jim Busis, chief executive and publisher of the Jewish Chronicle, which can trace its origins to the 1890s. “Some of our readers are professionally involved with Jews. Some of them are people who are just interested. And if you want to see ads for the restaurants in Squirrel Hill, we are the place.”

Jewish rhythms part of the city's soundtrack

The Squirrel Hill enclave, and the rest of the city of Pittsburgh, is a complex place, but also a meeting place of the cultures.

More than a third of the city is Catholic. The bishop always interrupts his Midnight Mass processional—stopping at the seventh row from the altar every Christmas Eve—to give a hug to the rabbi whose synagogue is down the street from the cathedral. There are six kosher food establishments in a two-block area of town. Yet the city’s signature sandwich is an unkosher mess of meat and creamy coleslaw, with fries mashed atop the glop.

The garment of choice every Friday before a Steelers game is a black-and-gold Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown shirt. Hours later, at sundown, the attire of choice, at least for those whose pedestrian figures blend into the dusk, is the black garb of the Orthodox and the observant on their solemn march to Sabbath prayers.

A former conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra lived here. So did my daughter’s high school classmate Cameron Jibril Thomaz. You may know him as the rapper, songwriter and actor Wiz Khalifa. My other daughter went to school with Malcolm McCormick. You may know him as Mac Miller, another rap artist, this one with a huge “Chai,” the Hebrew letter signifying “life,” on his arm. He was buried in September in the same Pittsburgh cemetery as the jazz pianist and composer Eroll Garner, who gave the world “Misty” and so many other classics of the middle of the last century.

The Stanford Law professor G. Marcus Cole, a black man who moved to Squirrel Hill as a child, tells the story of how his white neighbors rescued his father from a beating by a mob of white men. Bare-headed police officers who clearly have more ties to Ireland than to Israel stood guard at the Yeshiva School along Murray Avenue as the students, in black hats, walked to morning prayers in the days after the massacre. Some of their colleagues in police blue stood guard a half-mile away, near the synagogue. Someone brought them sugar cookies.

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The Squirrel Hill enclave, and the rest of the city of Pittsburgh, is a complex place, but also a meeting place of the cultures.

It did not go unnoticed that the man who attacked the Tree of Life was taken to a hospital whose president was Jewish, was treated by a Jewish emergency-room doctor and, moments after spewing in the hospital alcove that “all Jews have to die,” was ministered over by a nurse whose father was a rabbi.

On that cursed Saturday morning, when gunfire broke out in Tree of Life, just three blocks from my home, the Jewish rhythms that are a part of the city’s beat seemed to take over the soundtrack of Pittsburgh. There was an irresistible pull to migrate to the corner of Murray and Forbes, where in the 18th century a stockade, built to repel Indian attacks, once stood until the area became a place of peace. There were, to be sure, rabbis in that vigil crowd, but the vigil was dominated by the students from nearby Taylor Allderdice High School. For decades the few students in attendance in their school on Yom Kippur spent the day in study halls. There was no use teaching class during the High Holy Days.

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A woman stops to pray at a memorial at the other end of the block where the Tree of Life synagogue is located.

Also in the crowd that night was the Rev. Glenn Grayson, pastor of the Wesley Center AME Zion Church. “A tragedy for Squirrel Hill is a tragedy for the Hill,’’ he said of the historically black Hill District. ‘’It’s a tragedy for the whole city.”

There was no debate in our offices at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—where for years the reporter Steve Levin, gray beard drooping from his chin, black cap sitting on his skull, wrote luminous tone poems—about whether to describe Saturday’s massacre as a hate crime. The man charged with perpetrating it, who in his online biographic profile asserted that “Jews are the children of Satan,” reportedly shouted anti-Semitic epithets as his gun spewed bullets. Around here angry shouts are reserved for the Cleveland Browns, bitter rivals to the north but a team that traveled to Heinz Field for a Sunday confrontation that suddenly seemed to lose its urgency.

“We’re thankful for the victory but we all understand there are bigger things, there’s life,” Roethlisberger, the quarterback, said in the locker room. Two days later he joined 100 members of the Steelers, players and staff alike, at the funeral of Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers of Michele Rosenthal, former community relations manager for the NFL team. Former Steeler defensive end Brett Kiesel, a Mormon, was a pallbearer for one of the Rosenthals. At the same time, T-shirts began to appear featuring the Steelers logo with a Star of David substituted for one of the three famous diamond-shaped hypocycloids that is their internationally known logo. That evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the hockey team, observed 11 seconds of silence, one for each of the victims.

'Strong enough to survive this'

Squirrel Hill is slightly more diverse than it once was—it’s no longer, as piano instructor Jeffry Harris puts it, “a Jewish ghetto where the high school had a totally Jewish feel.” And yet the Jewish character remains. The non-Jews in the area pronounce Yiddish words correctly, a task their Jewish neighbors do not always master. On Sukkot, the harvest-oriented holiday that this year was marked between September 23 and September 30, it is not unusual to see a street crowded with sukkahs, the temporary structures built during the holiday. And on snowy December days, many automobiles crawl along the white-dusted streets with large menorahs, the candelabras used in Hanukkah observances, on the roof.

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At the end of the block where the synagogue is located children have hung stars on the police barricades in memory of the victims and acknowledgement of the tragedy that has struck the community.

“This community is strong enough to survive this,” said Rabbi Keren Gorban of Temple Sinai, just a few blocks from Tree of Life. “But this is an all-too-common event in all of our communities.”

But it is this community that is hurting now. The Rosenthal brothers, ages 54 and 59, were special-needs adults for whom Sabbath visits to Tree of Life were anchors in their routine—"an outlet, and source of comfort,” one of their friends said. Both were killed in the choke of gunfire Saturday. One of those injured was Andrea Wegner, a dental hygienist, who took her mother, Rose Mallinger, to services every Saturday. Mallinger, age 97, died there Saturday.

“I knew most of these people,” said David Dinkin, 95, said of the victims. For years, he served as executive director of Tree of Life, part of the time as school principal and, for a year after the rabbi died, he conducted the services there. “Some of them, I have known for all my life. One guy called me up a few days ago and asked me why I hadn’t been to temple for a while. I would have gone Saturday, but I woke up too late.”

The next day the synagogue he almost visited—now transformed into a crime scene—was festooned with flowers, messages, small expressions of big sentiments.

'This was home'

More than two decades ago I walked the streets of London in the days after the death of Princess Diana. Those streets, too, were clotted with memorials. But this was different. This was home, the flowers were dropped their by our neighbors, the victims were people we encounter at the Giant Eagle market or across the cold pie counter of the Eat’n Park. Two of them hid during the shooting spree in a custodial closet. One of those in the closet did not come out alive.

As a result Pittsburgh spent days ahead in grief, in prayer, in doubt and in fear.

The grief was for the 11 dead; the prayer was for the rest of us, left numb and bewildered and bent limp by unendurable loss. The doubt was for the erosion of confidence that a civilization based on the centuries-old conceit of openness can so endure. And the fear was for what might come next, in some other neighborhood, in some other community, in some other house of worship, or school, or shopping mall.

There was also thanks—to first responders, some of whom were injured in the shooting, all of whom exemplified what local TV icon Fred Rogers, in a Commencement address at Dartmouth College in 2002, called “heroism in the midst of chaos.” In that same address, Mister Rogers, who died the following year, spoke of “the erosion of the Sabbath.” Surely he could not have imagined that 16 years later that his neighborhood would be the setting for such a defiling of the Sabbath.

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Though the scars will endure, the old rituals of Squirrel Hill nonetheless will return. ‘’We as a caring community will only grow stronger,’’ said the children of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who were married in the Tree of Life and who died there, together, 62 years later. That is a hope, but not a certainty.

The shooting prompted expressions of sadness and calls for civility from political figures across the ideological spectrum and from both parties. But its occurrence so close to vital midterm elections—and coming during the same week as the pipe bombs and a Kroger grocery-store shooting—inevitability added a strain of controversy to the condolences. Two Democratic candidates seeking re-election, Governor Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey, were in Pittsburgh for campaign events, so they had a high profile in the hours after the shooting. President Donald Trump, who stirred controversy when he said that armed guards would have prevented the tragedy, swiftly scheduled a visit to the region.

But pugilists on both sides of the aisle generally came to understand that political debates were for another day. The midterm elections, to be sure, were a week away. The funerals were only days away. Before Squirrel Hill voted, it had to bury its dead—and bake cakes. As the next Sabbath following the shooting approached, Temple Sinai sent out a message urging congregants to ‘’bake something for Friday night,’’ adding: ‘’No need to let us know what you are bringing. Just do it, if it will make you feel good.’’

This was an episode that attracted national and international attention, but for us it was a story about our neighborhood, caught in the crossfire of the strains of the global village, and for once—sadly, so very sadly—the hurt was ours, and the victims were ours, and the need to heal is ours, no matter how many gluten-free cakes were baked. For now it has happened here; for millions across this wounded nation, we are the focus of anguish and anger and solace, the it-can-happen-anywhere place of the moment. And we know, given the tempo of tragedy in these times that are ours, that the title won’t be ours for long.

Though the scars will endure, the old rituals of Squirrel Hill nonetheless will return. ‘’We as a caring community will only grow stronger,’’ said the children of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who were married in the Tree of Life and who died there, together, 62 years later. That is a hope, but not a certainty.

On the Sabbath it is the custom here—practiced not only by Jews—to greet neighbors with a hearty ‘’Shabbat Shalom,’’ mixing the Hebrew words for the day of rest and the hope for peace. On that Saturday, here, there was no Shalom in Shabbat. On that Saturday, our younger daughter, 18 months from rabbinical ordination, planned a memorial gesture at Hebrew Union College. On that Saturday, our older daughter, in faraway San Francisco, texted us simply: Sleeping in my Pittsburgh shirt tonight.

In our mourning—shared across all faiths—and in the new conviction that this might not be such a safe place anymore, we need something to lean on, to steady us.Amid the clamor and the grief we might have reflected on the passage from Proverbs that lent its name to this place of tragedy, a reference to the metaphor describing Judaism’s most sacred text, the Torah, as a tree of life, or, in transliterated Hebrew, Etz hayyim:

It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.