Amid rising anti-Semitism across the country, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and committed the deadliest anti-Semitic act in American history. In its wake, the city of Pittsburgh’s religious community provided courageous leadership that inspired acts of solidarity, offering comfort and support to the victims, their families, and to Pittsburgh’s entire Jewish community. This solidarity has continued, crossing faith boundaries, in ongoing stands against acts of hate.
Together, the eleven victims of the October 27, 2018, attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood were the beating heart of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community. They were all elders over the age of 50 who often rose early to make breakfast for the ones who slept in or otherwise came late to worship on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. They greeted worshipers with jokes or a program.
Squirrel Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods make up some 57 percent of Jewish families in the Pittsburgh area. One report refers to Squirrel Hill as the “geographic and institutional center of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community,” and includes the large synagogue Tree of Life, where congregations from Dor Hadash and New Light also worship. The attack that targeted Tree of Life—a rampage that lasted over an hour, killing eleven and injuring six, including four police officers—struck not only at the communal sense of safety but also the tight-knit togetherness that was the way of life in the area.
The drumbeat of anti-Semitism has been growing louder in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents for decades and noted that 2017 had shown a 57 percent increase in harassment, vandalism, and assault specifically directed against Jewish Americans. The Tree of Life synagogue massacre was one tragic consequence of this increasing hate.
Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a federally funded community wellness center created to respond to community needs after the attack, described the legacy of the eleven community paragons by referring to a saying in the Jewish tradition: “May your memory be a blessing.” She added that one way to make people’s memories a blessing is to continue to tell their story.
“I think a lot about the people who we lost that day as people who woke up early to make sure the service could start,” Feinstein added. “I think a lot about how to honor their memory. . . (they) deserve to be remembered as the people who make services happen, who make community happen.”
Feinstein, like others in Pittsburgh’s religious communities, quickly moved from simply reflecting on the legacy of the eleven slain to acting. Instead of mourning in the isolation and shock brought on by understandable fear and grief, the very next day, residents gathered at a swiftly organized vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Thousands crowded into the hall for an interfaith, inter-community gathering of love, unity, and resolve. Every seat was filled; people stood in the back, and others spilled out onto the lawn.
As Reverend Liddy Barlow remembers: “People were standing out in the rain where they couldn’t even really properly hear what was going on inside, sharing umbrellas with each other, just as that act of solidarity. So very, very powerful.”
A banner hung solemnly from a podium that read: “Stronger together.” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders spoke at the vigil, condemning the attack on the three congregations as an attack on all of Pittsburgh. Wasi Mohamed, former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, announced to the group that the Muslim community had raised $70,000 to help victims’ families.
But their work was far from done, he said. “We just want to know what you need. If it is more money, just let us know. If it’s people outside your next service, protecting you, let us know [and] we will be there.” He added that Pittsburgh Muslims were grateful to repay the community generosity extended to them after both 9/11 and the 2016 election, events that resulted in a spike in hate speech against Muslims.
Other parts of the greater Pittsburgh community followed the leadership of the area’s religious through their own courageous acts, large and small, in a repudiation of hate. During their first game after the Tree of Life attack, the city’s major league hockey team, The Pittsburgh Penguins, held an eleven-second moment of silence in honor of the lives taken. The team wore patches combining their logo with the Star of David that read, “Stronger Than Hate.” Then the Penguins auctioned those jerseys as part of a fundraiser to benefit the victims. Area blood banks, responding to a need for donations to assist those injured in the shooting, stayed open longer in the weekend that followed the attack. Elsewhere, more than 10,000 donors contributed to an online fundraiser, which ultimately raised more than $1 million for Tree of Life victims’ families.
Less than a year later, after the March 15, 2019 attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, many Muslims in the United States were afraid for their lives. The Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light congregations responded by raising funds for security at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. “They stood with us, sang with us, prayed with us, grieved with us,” Donna Coufal, president of the Dor Hadash congregation told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Now, we hope to provide that same support for the Muslim community.”
Once again, the city gathered at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, this time to offer consolation and aid to their Muslim brothers and sisters. Months later, in June 2019, the FBI thwarted a bomb attack on a small Black church on Pittsburgh’s north side. Channeling its outrage at the targeting of yet another holy place, the community again chose love and solidarity as a practice of courage rather than allowing the shared traumas of the past to weaken or demoralize. The next Sunday, people from all faiths filled that church—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Latter-day Saints—creating a congregation of fellowship and communion. The crowd was so big that there were more supporters present that day than members of the congregation itself.
As Wasi Mohammed said at the Tree of Life vigil: “When I look back on this day, I will refuse to remember one individual filled with darkness. I’m going to remember the light. The thousands of people who showed up today . . . .thousands of people filled with love and hope.”