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Sunday Morning in Pittsburgh

Reporting from the scene of the worst massacre of Jews on American soil

Armin Rosen
October 28, 2018
A woman looks at flowers as part of a memorial on Oct. 28, 2018, outside of the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
A woman looks at flowers as part of a memorial on Oct. 28, 2018, outside of the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

At around 8:30 this morning, a man in his mid-30s jogged towards the north terminus of Murray Avenue, past the Pittsburgh Police department vehicles blocking off the side streets leading to the Tree of Life synagogue two blocks away, where the bodies of the dead still lay inside, unwashed. Before he reached a small collection of flowers that had accumulated at the end of the street, the jogger collapsed and began sobbing. A passerby helped him to his feet, and they embraced without exchanging a word.

Across the street from the synagogue, a team of Misaskim, crisis responders consisting of men from Haredi communities in the New York area, waited for the chance to enter the synagogue and begin their work. While they waited, they chatted with an FBI agent in a dark blue jacket. Zaka, a Jewish search and rescue organization, has a team of a half-dozen people that came to Pittsburgh; they also had not been in the synagogue as of this morning.

According to Jewish law, everything, even down to recoverable drops of blood, must be collected and buried as soon as possible, yet as of last night, the bodies of the eleven victims were still inside the synagogue, although sources indicate that two rabbis with the Pittsburgh community had already been inside. The victims were said to be practically unrecognizable. The veteran FBI special agent in charge of the investigation said yesterday that the synagogue was the worst crime scene had had seen in his 22 years on the job.

The Tree of Life is across the street from a children’s hospital that also includes a rehabilitation facility for adults. Lee Heards, a local schoolteacher, spent a year and a half there after being injured in a car accident in 1993. “The first steps I ever took out of the institution, we walked right here to the Tree of Life,” he told me.

Lee Heards is not Jewish, but he says he still drops by the shul occasionally. Today, he woke up early to pay tribute to slaughtered Jews, at a Jewish place of worship that holds special significance in his own life. “I always try to tell people, this is Pennsylvania,” said Heards, who is black. “And incidentally, Pennsylvania is probably one of the most racist places on earth.”

At 10 a.m., the entire Jewish leadership of Pittsburgh met at the JCC, a 10-minute walk from the Tree of Life. Later in the hour they were joined by Naftali Bennett, Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs, as well as by representatives from the FBI, who updated the meeting on the status of the investigation into yesterday’s massacre. The meeting discussed security requirements for the Jewish community in the coming days and weeks, although the FBI representative reportedly said that the chances of a copycat attack are relatively low.

Jonathan Young, president of the Orthodox Share Torah congregation, summed up one of the chief dilemmas that the Jewish community now faces: “We won’t be able to allow people in on a weekly basis the same way anymore,” Young said.

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Pittsburgh is, as one former high-ranking official in the community told me, “a community the represents Jewish unity, if you’re ever going to have it in the U.S.” The divisions between denominations or political blocs that define Jewish life across the U.S. are less pronounced in Pittsburgh, where much of the community lives in a single, fairly compact neighborhood. “All expressions of the Jewish faith live together here in Squirrel Hill,” says Dan Frankel, the area’s representative in the state legislature and a meeting attendee. “We manage to work together really well.”

There are trials ahead, aside from the end to the unlocked synagogue doors on Shabbat mornings, and it seems almost inconceivable that President Donald Trump will come to Pittsburgh at some point this week. “My personal feeling is it’s not appropriate,” said Frankel. “Unfortunately the president and administration have added a level of legitimacy to hate speech and hate activity … I don’t think he’d be well-received here.”

In addition to Naftali Bennett, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer is in Pittsburgh. When I asked the purpose of his visit, his answer was simple. “”To mourn with the community, to grieve with them.”

The JCC is closed today, and a steady stream of people in gym clothes were turned away at the door, including a number of people with small children hoping to use the pool. “I can’t go swimming? Why?” a young girl asked her mother. For an endless couple of seconds, she struggled as to how to begin her answer.

Farther up Murray Avenue, 11 yahrzeit candles burn in the window of Pinsker’s Judaica. A handwritten sign over the door reads, “closed because of yesterday.”

Down the street, a group of ninth graders convened a late morning vigil at the Holocaust memorial next to the Community Day School. The memorial looks like a maze of gridded paneled glass; on closer examination the panels are filled with aluminum tabs from soda cans, six million in total. Thirty or so people, most of them in their early teens, whispered kaddish, and then a psalm, and then sang a slow, quiet “Shalom Aleichem.” I spoke briefly to the organizer, a ninth grader named Carly Kaplan. “We wanted to support everyone. We know so much about where we come from and who we are.”

Other students, all of them of early-high-school age, gathered around. Kaplan and her friends had spent all of yesterday worrying about whether a friend of theirs were safe.

“You look at the news and it’s faces you know,” one of them said. “Everyone is texting from Spain, Israel, everywhere. “Families were scared to go bed last night.”

“When I woke up I had 97 texts asking if I was OK.”

“My Grandma was calling me on Shabbat.”

“I don’t know what happens next … We’re trying to do what we can to change but sometimes adults don’t listen.”

“I‘m afraid we’re gonna block off, the Jewish community … our doors will be locked but our minds should still be welcoming.”

When the vigil ended, at a gray, cold, and windy midday, the congregation from the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ met underneath the soda-can-tab walls of the memorial—the church uses the day school’s building on Sundays. “We don’t have the words,” Pastor Sean McDonnel told the Jews and Christians circled around him. He led everyone in prayer: “Father, we don’t know what to say. We don’t even know what to pray. But we come to you.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.