The following speech was given on Monday, Oct. 29, by Emory University student Lindsay Gorby at a school-sponsored vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting.
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately about how we never think the next attack will be in our towns, until it is. And I know every person of a minority here has had to think, even just briefly, “what if?” On Saturday, my “what if” became more than hypothetical. My friends from home have expressed to me how it’s hard to talk about Saturday’s events at Tree of Life to people, because no amount of explaining will ever truly convey how diverse, welcoming and interconnected the Jewish community of Pittsburgh is, and no map will ever be able to show just how central Tree of Life is in proximity to the friends, organizations, schools and neighborhoods that raised us. But I can try. I can try.
I need to tell you about my city. Pittsburgh has over 400 bridges, so it’s called the City of Bridges. It has 16 world championship sports titles, so it’s the City of Champions. It used to be a hub for steel production, so it’s the Steel City. And it’s home. It’s home.
Steel isn’t rolling out of the mills as it used to anymore, and so the city has rebuilt and rebranded itself as a city of innovation, technology, medicine, education and art. The air is clean, cars literally drive themselves, and in 2009, President Obama held the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh—because it was a model city for economic recovery and environmental sustainability.
So yes, the city’s industry and contributions have changed, but the heart of the city, the people, have stayed the same. And if you’re Jewish from Pittsburgh, you can trace your roots to the highly Jewish Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood surrounding Tree of Life.
You can’t walk down a street in Squirrel Hill without running into someone you know. Or someone who knows your mom, or your grandma. The family trees and family friends have such blurred lines that sometimes it’s easier to just refer to everyone at a family gathering as your cousin than it is to figure out how you’re actually related, if there is any blood relation at all. Our parents all grew up together. And their parents, and their parents before them. Our roots and our faith run deep.
So many times, I’d be in the car with my dad and he’d point to a house and tell me that’s where his grandmother lived, to a building and say he went to high school there, that his friends lived there. I need you to understand how close this community is.
One day, when I have children, I, too, will take them around Pittsburgh. I’ll show them my high school, my grandma’s house, the park I grew up playing in, and the synagogue where my great-grandmother worked and where my grandmother, mother and I all got confirmed. And then I’ll go down the street to Tree of Life, a few feet past where I’d drop off my little sister for her summer job, and say “11 people were murdered here.” Because they were Jewish. Because they wanted to pray in Tree of Life as families have done for generations.
I grew up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I mean that literally—he lived and worked in Pittsburgh. Whenever Mister Rogers looked into the camera and sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” he didn’t have to ask—we already were. His programming about love and acceptance and tolerance and cultural immersion were points of pride for the city. They still are.
I refuse to politicize this. I refuse to let an attacker win by further dividing this nation and casting a shadow of fear. Mister Rogers has a wonderful quote, that when things on the news get scary you should “look for the helpers. There are always people helping.”
The Muslim community of Pittsburgh offered to watch the doors outside Shabbat services so that Jews can feel safe praying again.
A fundraising goal for funeral costs quickly surpassed $500,000—and it’s still rising.
Blood donation centers had so many volunteers that they had to turn people away— and the people who were turned away just came back the next day, with their friends.
Thousands—if not millions of people—all over the world stood proudly and actively united with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.
Look around, right now. Look at the helpers.
When I was younger, dreading going to shul, I would always ask my parents why we, non-observant Jews, were even bothering to wake up so early and go to a synagogue. Their answers were never satisfying. “It’s just what we do,” they’d say. And the answer would be the same for anything religious. Sunday cchool? It’s what we do. Bat mitzvahs? It’s what we do. Spending hours learning how to read a small section of the Torah that I would only need to know once in my life? It’s what we do.
As I got older, though, I started to see the other aspects of Judaism that my parents couldn’t explain, but wouldn’t deny, either. Bringing food to families of the sick? Having to stop every few minutes at the grocery store to gab with someone you ran into? Supporting causes and charities through political activism? Welcoming strangers into our towns and our homes? It’s what we do. These should be periods, not question marks.
And now, I’m in Atlanta, asking myself how the Jewish people, the City of Pittsburgh, and especially the Jewish people in the City of Pittsburgh will ever continue on with the same vibrance and energy I have always known them to have—despite having this act of violence and terrorism and hate and fear hanging over our heads.
But we will move on. And we will love our neighbors with a ferocity.
Because it’s what we do.
It will take more than bullets to break the foundation of love and support that we have for one another.
Steel does not bend for hatred. You cannot divide a city of bridges. And champions become champions because they master the art of getting back up.
We are gathered here to mourn and support. And you’re listening to a speech I never, ever wanted to have to write. I pray that you never see your home on national news, littered with federal agents. And I pray that your home never feels the utter devastation, shock and grief that mine has. But if it ever does—we will be here. People from all races, nationalities, political parties, faiths and sexual orientations will be here. Because our belief in community, love and support unites us closer than any act of violence can divide us. We will be here. Together.
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.