For Jewish Writers From Pittsburgh, the Tree of Life Tragedy Became Very Personal

New anthology allows two dozen rabbis, journalists and educators from the community to offer personal reflections on the October 2018 mass shooting

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Amanda Godley, right, and son Benjamin Godley-Fisher pausing for a moment of silent reflection outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where they marked the second anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 11 worshippers, October 27, 2020.
Amanda Godley, right, and son Benjamin Godley-Fisher pausing for a moment of silent reflection outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where they marked the second anniversary of the mass shCredit: Gene J. Puskar,AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

David Shribman is often asked how, right after 11 Jews were shot dead at the local Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he came up with the idea of headlining his newspaper with the first four words of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

In an essay published in a new anthology marking the second anniversary of the deadliest attack on American Jews in U.S. history, the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shares his response.

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“My explanation was that if words were failing us, and by that time they were, then perhaps we were thinking in the wrong language,” he writes. “The real language of the Kaddish, of course, is Aramaic, and it somehow seemed right to employ a 10th-century prayer for a 21st-century tragedy.”

Shribman is one of two dozen rabbis, journalists and educators to have contributed their personal reflections on the tragedy to “Bound in the Bond of Life” – a collection of essays published by the University of Pittsburgh Press and now available in bookstores.

As Shribman poignantly writes, it was a tragedy whose repercussions are still unfolding: “I didn’t hear the shots the first time. I hear them all the time now. I suspect I am not alone. So many of us – whether Jewish or not, whether from Squirrel Hill or not, whether in Pittsburgh that morning – hear those shots still. They were the modern-day shot heard ’round the world. But they also are shots that continue to be heard around our world, whether we heard them for the first time or not.”

Beth Kissileff, co-editor of "Bound in the Bond of Life."Credit: Jon Perlman

The shots were fired on October 27, 2018, during Shabbat morning services at Tree of Life, a Conservative congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In addition to the 11 worshippers killed in the attack, another six were wounded. The white nationalist gunman was identified as Robert Bowers. Arrested at the scene, he currently awaits trial.

The new anthology is the brainchild of two prominent members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community who served as its co-editors: writer Beth Kissileff – whose husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, leads a Conservative congregation that shares a building with Tree of Life – and local Jewish archivist Eric Lidji.

Perlman, who lost three of his congregants on that day two years ago, is the only contributor who was actually on the premises when the shots were fired. Many of the others, however, were personally acquainted with the victims and survivors.

‘Active shooter’

The purpose of the anthology, Kissileff tells Haaretz in a phone interview from her home in Pittsburgh, was to lend an insider’s perspective to a story that has topped world headlines.

“Lots of national media outlets came in and wrote stories, but not everyone got it quite right, or they had some storyline they were trying to promote that wasn’t really relevant to what was happening,” she says. “It was more their own ideas and thoughts that they were imposing on what happened. My co-editor and I really wanted to provide an opportunity for local people to express their thoughts.”

"Bound in the Bond of Life," co-edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji. Credit: design by Alex Wolfe / University of Pittsburgh Press

The idea came to her about three months after the tragedy, she recounts, when she and her husband led a delegation from their synagogue to South Carolina, where they participated in events marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nine Black worshippers were killed at the Charleston church during a deadly shooting in June 2015.

“When we got back home, I asked the participants from our congregation to write up some of their reflections, and I was going to put it all together and send it to the group that hosted us in Charleston,” Kissileff relays.

“Originally, I thought about including articles and essays that had already been written, along with photos of the artifacts that had been left behind. But then my co-editor had the idea that we should turn this into a local history project with contributions from local writers exclusively. And that’s how it got started.”

A freelance writer and member of Tree of Life, Molly Pascal was not in synagogue that morning. But her brother Sam was. In her essay, she recounts the moment she realized that life as she knew it had been changed forever.

“We are eating breakfast when Facebook lights up with an alert,” she writes. “Six words that crack my life into Before and After. Active shooter at Tree of Life. I read the words again because they don’t make sense. This doesn’t happen here. We leave our doors open. We leave cars unlocked. We housed Mr. Rogers. This doesn’t happen in Squirrel Hill.”

She calls her brother. He doesn’t answer. “I begin to shake,” she recounts.

“This is an agony I have never understood before, an agony I associate with long-past wars, of knowing that there will be a list of dead, and being forced to wait to hear if the ones you love are on it.” Her brother, fortunately, survived.

Two days later, Pascal recounts, while driving her children to their Jewish day school, they begin to bombard her with questions she finds difficult to answer. Mostly, they want to know whether they will be safe again. All the odds are that they will be, she writes, but “No. I can’t promise them they will be safe.”

‘Callous, conscious evil’

For Andrew Goldstein, a young reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it would be the biggest story of his budding career – and a very personal one. He had grown up in Squirrel Hill and was very much a part of the local Jewish community. His Aunt Ellen, Uncle Paul and their two sons were members of Tree of Life. So were some of his friends.

After being woken by a phone call from one of his editors that Saturday morning, he drove to the scene of the crime. On his way, Goldstein recounts, he was overcome by a sense of dread. “I never expected to be speeding to a crime scene to find out if my friends and relatives were alive,” he writes.

It took him several months to find the best word to describe his feeling that morning, he writes, but then it came to him. “I eventually determined that it was violation,” he writes. “I felt personally violated, and I felt that my family, as well as my community, had been violated. The attack on Tree of Life was an invasion by callous, conscious evil into a place of warmth and goodness – a place I knew.”

Ann Belser, who runs what she describes as a “hyper-local” weekly newspaper in Pittsburgh, was walking her puppy that Shabbat morning when she heard the sound of gunfire from the synagogue about 400 feet (120 meters) away from home. Her dog heard it too and tried to pull her away. A few minutes later, when she arrived home, she found a strange man sitting in her home.

It turned it that he had fled the synagogue when he heard the shooting and been let in by her ex-wife, who spotted him running down the street. In the hours and days that would follow the shooting, writes Belser, her house would turn into “an odd staging area for the reaction to the tragedy.”

“After a couple of weeks the crowds are heavy only on weekends,” she writes. “Still, I realize what it must be like to live in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero. Our neighborhood has become the Jewish Ground Zero.”

Kissileff was about to join her husband at the synagogue that Saturday morning when she heard the door open. It was her husband. She didn’t understand why he was home so early. “There’s been a shooting at the shul,” he told her. He had never heard live gunfire before, but by intuition, he would proceed to explain, he understood that a shooting was underway in the building. He promptly led several of his congregants into a pitch-dark electrical storage room, where they took cover, before escaping himself.

Over the past two years, Kissileff writes, she has participated in numerous events and programs hoping to learn from the experience and assist the families of the victims and other survivors. She has also written about it extensively, both for Jewish and non-Jewish publications.

And yet, one thought continues to haunt her.

“None of it helps me answer the riddle of why my family was spared when others were not,” she writes.

“Bound in the Bond of Life,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, is out now, priced $25

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