A Year On, Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Is Healing, Rebuilding — and Hiring Armed Guards

Twelve months after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, members of the Tree of Life and the Steel City’s other synagogues are discovering the ‘new reality of being Jewish in America.’ The first of two special reports

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Entrance to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, currently closed to its congregation, October 23, 2019
Entrance to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, currently closed to its congregation, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

PITTSBURGH — The parking lot behind Rodef Shalom was completely full Saturday morning as families made their way into Shabbat services. The Reform congregation, which has existed in Pittsburgh since the 1850s, is housed in a grandiose, turn-of-the-century building with colorful stained-glass windows and a large dome visible from several blocks away. It has also assumed another role over the past year, becoming the place where members of the Tree of Life synagogue gather to pray every Saturday.

Tree of Life, a conservative congregation with its own large building 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) down the road from Rodef Shalom, became America’s most well-known synagogue on the morning of October 27, 2018. The circumstances behind that fame were tragic and horrifying: A far-right extremist entered the Tree of Life building armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and murdered 11 worshippers who were praying inside. It was the worst anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States, and an unprecedented moment of crisis for the Jewish community — in Pittsburgh and all over the country.

Memorial plaque outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

As the community prepares to mark one year to that tragedy, local Jewish leaders, activists and residents spoke with Haaretz over three days about how “10/27” — the phrase many use when referring to the attack — changed Jewish life in the Steel City forever.

The changes they described were all on display at Rodef Shalom last Saturday, even amid the celebratory High Holy Days atmosphere.

The first change was immediately visible at the synagogue entrance. Like many Jewish institutions in Pittsburgh and across America, Rodef Shalom has increased its investment in security over the past year. When this reporter visited the same synagogue five years ago, there was no security at the entrance and anyone could simply walk into the building from the street. This time, my bag and equipment were checked and I was asked the purpose of my visit before being allowed to enter.

The synagogue has also taken steps to “harden” the building itself against potential security threats.

The new security measures aren’t the only noticeable change. Inside the synagogue itself, signs now guide visitors toward two different prayer services: A Reform service that takes place in the main sanctuary; and the Tree of Life’s conservative service, which takes place in a smaller room in the western part of the building.

Rodef Shalom Synagogue, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

This cooperation has a touch of historical irony to it: Tree of Life was founded in 1864 by a group of congregants who left Rodef Shalom because they thought it had become too religiously liberal. A century and a half later, the two communities are once again sharing the same roof — reunited in the face of tragedy and trauma.

Shortly after the attack, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom offered his synagogue’s large building to the Tree of Life congregation for any purpose it might need. “It was the natural thing to do,” he told Haaretz earlier this week, speaking at a café two blocks from the Tree of Life building. “They quickly took us up on the offer, and we’ve been sharing space on the weekends ever since.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno in his Rodef Shalom Synagogue, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

“They decided to hold their daily minyan prayers at a nearby conservative synagogue, Beth Shalom, and to do Shabbat services in our building,” Bisno explains. “We also hired their maintenance worker, who had worked for many years at Tree of Life. He’s now working for us, and one of his responsibilities is to handle everything that has to do with their Shabbat services and other needs. I think it has helped members of their congregation to feel at home in our building.”

Bisno says one of the things he likes most about the current arrangement is that “you can walk into our building on Saturday morning and hear music from two different areas.”

‘Just too painful’

Other synagogues in the city have also opened their doors to the Tree of Life community. Over the weekend, Temple Sinai — another Reform congregation located within a short walking distance of the Tree of Life building — hosted the Bat Mitzvah celebration of a family from the neighboring synagogue. “This year has given us important lessons on coming together as a community and supporting each other,” says Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jamie Gibson. Speaking to Haaretz in his congregation last Sunday, he says the city’s Jewish community was always relatively close, but that the Tree of Life attack “brought us even closer.”

"This year has given us important lessons on coming together as a community and supporting each other" - Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jamie Gibson

The Tree of Life building has been closed to the public ever since the attack. Very few people have been allowed to enter the building, which for many months was still an active crime scene. One of the few visitors has been the synagogue’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, who was inside the building on the day of the attack and has since returned to take away his congregation’s Torah scrolls.

The building is currently surrounded by a fence, covered with posters featuring dozens of drawings sent by children worldwide expressing their love, condolences and support. Close to the locked main door is a drawing sent by a student from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which was the site of another mass shooting in February 2018.

A drawing from a teenager from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida, outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

“After the attack, for a very long time nobody even had the time to think about what should happen to the building,” says a member of the Tree of Life community who asked not to be identified by name. “We were all in shock, grieving, trying to make sense of what had happened. People were literally trying to avoid not just thinking about the building but even remembering that it exists. I know several people who tried for many months to avoid passing by the building, because it was just too painful.”

The shuttered synagogue is located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which is home to many other Jewish institutions — including synagogues of all denominations, a Jewish community center and several Jewish day schools. Many businesses here have signs in their storefronts expressing solidarity and support for the local Jewish community.

Unlike in many other cities across the United States where the Jewish community has mostly relocated to the suburbs, Pittsburgh still has a strong and vibrant Jewish community within its city boundaries. And Squirrel Hill remains the beating heart of that community — a neighborhood in which one can walk several minutes in any direction and pass at least one Jewish institution along the way.

A sign in a local store, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

‘Protecting Jewish lives’

In recent months, with the community slowly starting to heal, a debate began over the future of the Tree of Life building. Some members thought it could never be used again, in light of the trauma and pain associated with it. Others advocated renovating it and giving it a new, larger purpose. Eventually, that’s the path that was chosen: Last week, ahead of the one-year commemoration, the synagogue’s leadership announced a plan to reopen the building by late spring 2020.

The renovated building will host the Tree of Life congregation and probably the two other congregations that also used it: Dor Hadash and New Light. In addition, it will also be a space for educational and cultural activities, working with organizations such as the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The plan also includes the construction of a memorial to the 11 congregants who were murdered.

While the renovation will be dramatic, other synagogues and Jewish institutions are also being forced to make changes to their buildings — in order to improve security conditions. Many synagogues are also spending large sums of money on hiring security guards.

A ritual Jewish sukka outside a house in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Gibson says that “hiring security isn’t about protecting Jewish institutions; it’s about protecting Jewish lives.” Last Sunday morning, as parents from his congregation dropped off their children to attend religious school classes, Gibson was chatting with the security guard posted outside the synagogue’s front door.

“It’s important for people to know and feel that we have security. But I also want them to notice that the biggest thing our guard wears on him is a smile,” says Gibson. “We need to provide security, and at the same time we need to make sure people feel comfortable and welcome.”

One member of the congregation, Andrea, says she brought her non-Jewish parents to visit the synagogue a few weeks ago and they were “shocked” when they realized the reasons behind the presence of an armed guard outside.

“My father said it made him want to cry,” she recounts. Andrea and her husband, who is Jewish, were already leaning toward raising their kids as Jewish before the attack last year. But after what had happened at Tree of Life, “We both felt even more strongly that this was the right thing to do,” she says. “This was our family’s identity; we became very determined to give this education to our children.”

Murray Avenue Kosher, in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

Having armed security at the synagogue was inevitable, she adds, although she is relived that her young children have not asked questions about it or raised the issue at all over the past year.

“I’m not looking to hide or avoid the reality, but it’s a difficult issue to explain to a 5-year-old,” she says. “Our approach right now is not to make a big deal out of it. There will be a right time and place to talk about why we need this.”

Kate, another congregant who spoke with Haaretz after dropping her child off at Sunday school, says that, today, everyone is much more aware of their surroundings. “I actually felt relieved when I noticed the security around the synagogue during the High Holy Days,” she says. “I think some people are sad; they wish we could go back to the way things used to be. But this is now the new reality of being Jewish in America.”

Another member of the Jewish community, Joel, has mixed feelings about the security issue. He says that while it’s obviously good to have a security presence, “It’s also a strange feeling that I can’t just come to my own synagogue, open the door and walk in like I used to do for years. There’s a personal sense of loss.”

Children in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

‘Sense of urgency’

Pittsburgh is also home to several Jewish day schools that have boosted their security measures since the attack. Arielle Frankston-Morris is the director of Teach PA, an organization that works under the Orthodox Union and performs advocacy work on behalf of Jewish day schools in the state of Pennsylvania. She says that “security was our number one priority over the past year. After the attack on the Tree of Life, we started getting phone calls from parents — in Pittsburgh and other parts of the state — asking us: What are we going to do? How can we make sure our kids are safe in school?”

Pittsburgh’s Jewish day schools are all situated within the Squirrel Hill area and close to where the attack took place. “Parents were scared, especially those who send their kids to institutions with clearly Jewish names or with words like ‘Hebrew academy’ inscribed on their buildings,” says Frankston-Morris. “There was a real sense of urgency to take action on this issue.”

Before the Tree of Life attack, Frankston-Morris says security was seen as a bonus — something “schools that had more money could spend their extra cash on.” After the mass shooting, though, it became a necessity — and not every school had the financial ability to handle it. Her organization and others in the Jewish community have successfully lobbied the state government in Pennsylvania on the issue: Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, and the state’s legislature have thus far agreed to provide $3.2 million for security at nonpublic schools, winning strong praise from Teach PA and other organizations.

In Memoriam signs for the Tree of Life Synagogue attack victims, October 24, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

Rodef Shalom’s Bisno says that, over time, these security expenses could force the Jewish community to make significant structural changes. “Having armed security at every Jewish institution in America — if someone wanted to slowly bankrupt the American Jewish community, this would be a good way of doing it,” he says.

He adds that the need to provide security, on top of all the ongoing services, commitments and initiatives of different Jewish institutions, could actually lead to more cooperation and less competition within the Jewish world — if only because it would help avert a financial collapse.

“I hope that one result of the current crisis,” Bisno concludes, “will be a recognition that we can do more things better if we do them together.”

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