Off the Shelf: A community before and after disaster

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

On October 27, 2018, during Shabbat morning services, the worst mass killing of American Jews took place in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. Eleven people died in the shooting by a white supremacist who objected to a program organized by one of the three Jewish groups that met in the building. Yet, it’s not the murderer who concerns Mark Oppenheimer in “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood” (Alfred A. Knopf). Nor does he focus on those who died because much has already been written about them. What Oppenheimer wants to explore is the reaction of others in the community: “I was curious to know how people dealt with the aftermath of mass violence. When the cameras and the police tape were gone, what stayed behind?”

Oppenheimer’s interest is partly personal: his family has connections to Squirrel Hill. But what really interests him is the community itself. The author calls it “the oldest, most stable, most internally diverse Jewish neighborhood in the United States... Whereas many Jewish cities lost their Jewish population to white flight after World War II, the Jewish population of Pittsburgh never relocated en masse, and half of it still lives in Squirrel Hill or the immediately adjacent East End neighborhoods.” Oppenheimer’s map of the area shows six synagogue buildings and a Jewish Community Center. When the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh needed more space for the community day school and Jewish Family Service, it chose to remain in the area, rather than moving outside the city. Although Jews do not make up a majority of Squirrel Hill’s population, they’ve made a commitment to remain. 

Several chapters focus on the people who felt a need to do something after the murders. For example, Oppenheimer writes about the group of teenagers who regularly met at the Starbucks in Squirrel Hill and organized a gathering that took place the Saturday night of the shooting. There is Greg Zanis, the founder and sole member of Crosses for Losses, who travels across the country putting up memorial crosses for those who died a violent death. For the Tree of Life Synagogue, he placed a Star of David over the crosses – one for each person who was killed. Eric Lidji became one of the archivists who collected material left behind by visitors at the synagogue, and faced deciding what artifacts should be kept permanently and which could be discarded. 

Other chapters focus on various symbols that were designed as a response to the murders, the funerals of those who were killed, what the synagogue looked like after the attack, decisions about what should happen to the building and the controversy about what occurred during the memorial on the first anniversary of the attack (where one rabbi spoke about gun control, even though no one was supposed to mention anything political). Oppenheimer writes dispassionately about President Donald Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh and those who protested against it. He manages to balance those who thought Trump shouldn’t have showed up unless he was willing to denounce white supremacy and those who believed it was important to have the president acknowledge what occurred. Oppenheimer also tells of the reaction of some Black students at the local high school, who wondered why the same kind of attention is not paid to the murders of Black members of the community. 

One of the most affecting symbols of America’s support of the Jewish community was a headline that appeared on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: it featured the first four words of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew. Ironically, it ended the career of the paper’s editor, David Shribman, a Jewish man married to a Christian woman. The family belonged to a synagogue, but also celebrated Christian holidays. While there were no complaints about the headline, John Block, the publisher of the paper, had not been consulted beforehand, which is a usual courtesy offered with potentially controversial page one headlines. He also disliked the fact that Shribman had written a column about what happened that appeared in The New York Times a day after the shooting. Shribman had been scheduled to retire the next year, but the date was quickly moved up. Oppenheimer writes that the two men will not discuss what occurred, but it seems clear the headline was part of the reason Shribman was forced out earlier than planned. Plus, Shribman has gone on record as saying, “I didn’t show [the headline] to anyone for fear there would be pressure to kill it.”

What is sad is that all the attention shined on the Jewish community has not resulted in more people becoming involved in the Tree of Life Synagogue or in the New Light Congregation, which also met in the building. Oppenheimer notes that even the large amount of money raised can not resolve their problems: “Money is not going to bring new members to Tree of Life or young people to New Light. What members of Dor Hadash [the third group that met in the building] wanted, more than anything, were some new gun-control laws in Pennsylvania, and they were no closer on that front.” He also notes that the money received by the families of those whose relatives died in the attack in no way compensates them for the losses they suffered.

“Squirrel Hill” tries to be a historical and a sociological look at the Squirrel Hill Jewish community, in addition to being a psychological study of those affected by the Tree of Life shooting. It manages to find a balance between the two approaches, in addition to being well written and easy to read. Parts will strike readers as particularly poignant, yet those moments will probably differ depending on what questions readers are asking. But, while Oppenheimer can offer no firm answers about the future of Jewish Squirrel Hill, he does give readers a better understanding of what occurred on October 27, 2018, and why people reacted as they did in its aftermath.