Tree of Life Massacre, Three Years On: How Pittsburgh's Jews Overcame the Tragedy

It was the worst antisemitic attack in American history, but the 2018 massacre also showed the strength and resilience of a city, a neighborhood, and a diverse Jewish community

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Two men hugging at a community vigil on the first anniversary of the Tree of Life killings, October 2019.
Two men hugging at a community vigil on the first anniversary of the Tree of Life killings, October 2019.Credit: Jared Kohler
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

Horrible events can bring out the best in people. Yet, living through such events, if they offer an opportunity to respond with selflessness and cooperation, can leave one with a warm glow of satisfaction, mixed but not necessarily separate from the pathos of the tragedy itself.

Like many of my generation, I was beside myself with grief and shock when John Lennon was shot to death in December 1980. And I needed to share it. I was living in New York at the time and so, on the Saturday following his assassination, I wandered into Central Park, where, just across from the Dakota apartments where Lennon had lived and died, I found hundreds if not thousands of like-minded people. No organized memorial was taking place; everyone apparently wanted to be immersed in the company of others who shared a sense of personal loss.

It seemed natural just to plop down on the chilly ground and join a circle that had gathered around a guitar-playing guy also in his early 20s, I presumed, who played by heart one Lennon or Lennon-McCartney song after another, while the rest of us sang along. It was exhilarating, in part because I didn’t know any of my fellow mourners.

That may seem like an inapt analogy, if not worse, for the portrait offered by Mark Oppenheimer in “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” his book about the way this Pittsburgh community responded to the horrific assault on Jewish worshippers on October 27, 2018. Eleven people, each of whom had come to celebrate Shabbat at one of three different synagogues that met in a single building, were murdered that day, and another 11 were wounded.

Their alleged killer was a middle-aged white man who was outraged that one of the congregations, the Reconstructionist Dor Chadash, had expressed support for refugees and immigrants at a service several weeks earlier.

Undoubtedly, the trauma endured by the families of the victims, and by the wounded and bystanders to the terror attack, was different, in nature and scale, from the distress, however genuine, felt by other residents of the neighborhood and city, and among Jews and non-Jews alike nationally and around the globe. (Compared to that, my mourning 40 years ago for a cultural hero may seem trivial.)

Mark Oppenheimer, right, and the cover of his book "Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood."Credit: Lotta Studio / JTA

But one of the things Oppenheimer’s book illustrates so effectively is just how far out the concentric circles of pain can ripple. Even people halfway across the country with no connection to either Jews or Pittsburgh wanted to do something in response to the act of terror and, we can gather, derived a magical sense of satisfaction by becoming involved, while hopefully bringing comfort to those at the heart of the tragedy.

Oppenheimer – a writer, podcaster (for Tablet magazine’s “Unorthodox”) and occasional university lecturer in the humanities – was interested in examining the special qualities of this urban neighborhood that enabled its residents to come together almost instantly to respond to the attack that chilly October Saturday three years ago.

Oppenheimer, 47, barely talks about Robert Bowers, the alleged shooter (though he also doesn’t make a fetish of not mentioning his name), whose prosecution has been in the pre-trial motions stage for more than a year. Nor is his principal focus the victims, though we learn something about each of them.

It wasn’t by chance that they were at Tree of Life that morning: Each was a committed member of an aging and shrinking, non-traditional congregation. (The youngest among them was 54, the oldest 97.) Each had made the effort to arrive early at shul, though at 9:50 A.M., when the shooting began, at least one of the synagogues was still short of a 10-person minyan.

We could say that Oppenheimer’s real interest is politics, if we define politics at its most basic level: “The total complex of relations between people living in society,” as Merriam-Webster has it. Oppenheimer’s book is most interesting in the way it extends outward from the immediate families of the victims to tell us about the way the Tree of Life massacre touched the lives not only of the more than 12,000 Jews in Squirrel Hill, but the citizens of Pittsburgh in general, and people across the United States.

The Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, earlier this week.Credit: Keith Srakocic/AP

Retrofitting crosses

One of the first outsiders who felt compelled to come to Squirrel Hill was Greg Zanis, a retired carpenter from Aurora, Illinois, who had been fashioning crosses and delivering them to the sites of mass shootings and other disasters since at least the Columbine school massacre in 1999. In 2018, the same year as the Tree of Life shootings, Zanis (who died in 2020) undertook to plant a cross, each one marked with the victim’s name, at the site of every one of the 561 homicides that took place in Chicago.

Zanis hit the road for Pittsburgh on Sunday morning, before the body count at Tree of Life was even public (“I have my tools and my Home Depot credit card,” he told Oppenheimer in an interview. “I have to build on the road”). He retrofitted his crosses with Stars of David and was, by all accounts, respectful in the way he erected them on the lawn of Tree of Life. He acted out of Christian piety, but does not seem to have gone to Pittsburgh seeking converts.

Another non-Jew who felt the impulse to do something was Shay Katiri, a 29-year-old Iranian exile and student in Washington, who within hours of the attack had started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Tree of Life.

Some of the cross memorials erected outside the Tree of Life Synagogue by Greg Zanis days after the massacre. Credit: Keith Srakocic/AP

Katiri had no particular knowledge of the community’s needs – in fact, he wasn’t even aware of the fact that there were different congregations housed in the Tree of Life building, an oversight that created a technical hurdle when it came time to distribute the money – so he improvised, promising that donations would be used to “help the congregation with the physical damages to the building, as well as the survivors and the victims’ families.”

CNN anchor Jake Tapper noticed the campaign the same day and tweeted about it, which may explain how it was able to raise $1 million during its first four days.

Those are but two examples of the kinds of gestures inspired by the massacre and described in the book. Others include the dispatch to Squirrel Hill by Rose McGee, “a Black Christian from Minnesota,” of 3,000 Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, which she took care to bake in a kosher kitchen; and the local woman who showed up in the middle of the night where a burial society staffer was watching over victims’ bodies prior to their funerals, and pushed $1,000 in cash into the hands of the volunteer to help with costs. When asked for her name, or at least an embrace, the mysterious stranger said, “No name, no hug,” before withdrawing back into the night.

You may find these anecdotes more or less moving, or perhaps, in some cases, irritating. But if you are Jewish, you can’t fail to be dumbfounded to learn that the following March, when the Victims of Terror Fund organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh presented its plan for allocating the total of $6.3 million raised by Katiri and others, not a single objection was raised in response.

The committee in charge of that task wisely consulted with attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who had been the ”special master” of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. But it went even further than he counseled when it decided to make awards not only to the families of those murdered and to those, including police, wounded in the terror attack, but also to anyone who was on the synagogue grounds at the time. All that the latter was required to do was sign a document attesting that “I was physically present on the Tree of Life synagogue property … on the morning of October 27, 2018.” Nonetheless, as federation board chair Meryl Ainsman told the author: “There was not one word – and these are Jews! – not one word that we did something wrong. ... And believe me, if there was, we would know.’”

Oppenheimer is not a Squirrel Hill native, but his father grew up there, and a great-great-great grandfather was among the founders of its first burial society, in the 1840s. He not only agrees with former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman (who lost his job after he decided, on the day of the first funeral, to splash a banner headline across the top of the paper’s front page with the first words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, in Hebrew letters) that Pittsburgh may be “the least antisemitic city in the country,” but he also suggests that the Jews of Squirrel Hill, “with their dense settlement, deep roots, economic vitality, robust Jewish life, and warm relations with their Jewish neighbors,” could very well “offer a model of resilience.”

First responders surrounding the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after a shooter killed 11 worshippers there on October 27, 2018.Credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Because of that combination of qualities, he writes, “Morbid as it is to say, if mass murder had to come, there was probably no place in America better positioned to endure it than Squirrel Hill.”

It seems that the neighborhood’s residents, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, immediately grasped that the cohesiveness of their intricate social fabric depended on mutual respect and consideration. This is hardly a given in these polarized times, when so many Americans seem prepared to tear down any remaining social solidarity out of a conviction that willingness to compromise is a sign of weakness.

In Squirrel Hill three years ago, we read, people not only wanted to express their personal distress, but to do so in a way that would not step on their neighbors’ toes. The impressive cooperation between the Orthodox and the alternative burial societies, not to be taken for granted, for example; or the need felt by left-wing political activist Tammy Hepps to reword an open letter to then-President Donald Trump so that instead of telling him explicitly to stay out of town, she explained that he was “not welcome in Pittsburgh until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees.”

Observes Oppenheimer: “The until was important to Hepps, who wanted to convey a spirit of optimism – maybe, she wanted to say, maybe he’ll see he has gone too far.”

Trump of course did visit Squirrel Hill, on October 30, without revising his rhetoric, and he was greeted with a hastily organized public protest. At the time, Tracy Baton, who had organized the local Women’s March at the time of the presidential inauguration in 2017, communicated to her Jewish comrades from that early effort that they should count on her to plan the current rally.

“I am Black, queer, and Mennonite,” Baton told her friends on the Monday. “I said, ‘He is coming in twenty-four hours … and y’all are at funerals, and cleaning bodies and cleaning for funerals, so we have to do this.’” Baton was offering, in effect, to be the Shabbos goy.

A woman walking past artwork on a fence outside the Tree of Life building earlier this week.Credit: Keith Srakocic/AP

‘I wish I had a revolver’

Squirrel Hill, we are told, was home to a number of Trump supporters, even if the neighborhood was predominantly Democratic, and there could easily have been acrimony, if not violence, on the afternoon of his visit. But, that too passed in relative quiet. Longtime resident Tova Weinberg was among the minority who were happy to see the president, and wanted to make it known, but she too apparently understood that there was a rhetorical line she should not cross, if matters were not to get out of hand.

Weinberg, Oppenheimer tells us, was “Squirrel Hill’s most famous matchmaker,” having been a co-founder of the Jewish dating site SawYouAtSinai, in 2003. As a “bona fide Trump voter,” he writes, “she was excited to get close to her president, and even to have a little fun with his critics.”

Weinberg and her husband had lived in Squirrel Hill for more than 35 years, but were preparing to make good on a long-standing plan to move to Jerusalem, where many of their children and grandchildren now lived. Although the shul the Weinbergs attended was an Orthodox one, Tova personally knew four of those killed at Tree of Life, situated several blocks away.

Writes Oppenheimer: “She couldn’t understand why the liberals were so upset about the president coming. After all, she said, the first responders, like the police and firefighters, ‘they wanted him!’ And ‘the people in the hospital – they would have liked to see him, you know? But no one thought about that.’

“Tuesday ‘was a beautiful day,’ she said, ‘and I decided I’m going to ride my bike, and antagonize everybody, because that’s what I like to do!’ She poked fun at a man who was wearing a ‘FUCK TRUMP!’ sign around his neck (trust me, you’d rather not hear her joke), and when a ‘very snobby Jewish woman with her dog’ told Weinberg that ‘I wish I had a revolver, I’d shoot him,’ [she] said, ‘Is that nice? Eleven people just got killed. Are you out of your mind?’” (Weinberg did have a point.)

The "Stronger than Hate" logo and motto, based on the symbol of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which in turn was based on that of U.S. Steel, featured on a yarmulke at the Tree of Life Synagogue.Credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

It is with this conciliatory atmosphere in mind that we can understand why, a year later, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman infuriated many when he made an appeal for better gun-control laws during the city-wide memorial event held on the massacre’s first anniversary.

Perlman was rabbi of the New Light Congregation, and was present on that Shabbat when three of his congregants were murdered. His call for gun legislation was certainly understandable, and considering the number of people who rose to applaud when he made it, he was speaking for a majority. Nonetheless, Perlman had violated an agreement that all the speakers had made to keep “politics” out of their remarks. (Perlman told Oppenheimer that he had no memory of such an agreement.)

In a post-memorial meeting, a number of the members of the event’s planning committee expressed anger about Perlman, and New Light’s two co-presidents later told their rabbi that he needed to apologize to the Jewish community, which he did. “If he hadn’t,” one of them told the author, “he would’ve been fired.”

To what extent is antisemitism on the rise in America (or elsewhere), and what is the proper way to respond to the threat? These are not questions that find their answers in “Squirrel Hill.” But if the Talmud tells us that the Temple was destroyed by “sinat hinam” (baseless hatred), Mark Oppenheimer’s book is a welcome reminder that “baseless love” can help keep a community together, as well as serve as a salve for the pain of individuals.

Its lessons are not likely to prevent the next racial terror attack, but they contain some of the antibodies that could help a community to withstand an assault.

“Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” by Mark Oppenheimer, is out now, priced $28.95.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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