On a Saturday morning in March of 1997 I became a bat mitzvah at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
I wasn’t supposed to be there. The previous October a fire had blazed through my family’s regular synagogue, Beth Shalom, less than a mile away.
Anyone who is from Squirrel Hill, or has ever spent time in the place where I was lucky to be raised, will not be surprised to know how the community responded to this disaster.
Jews and gentiles alike ran toward the fire. As Beth Shalom’s executive director told a reporter at the time: “I didn’t have to look — everyone came to me.” The line put me in mind of my favorite of Fred Rogers’ sayings. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Squirrel Hill, Mr. Rogers’ real-world neighborhood, is full of such people. His home was three blocks from Tree of Life.
He isn’t the only one. Mike Tomlin, the coach of the Steelers, lives nine doors away. Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive, a few doors farther. The mayor lives five blocks away. I grew up down the street from the synagogue.
While my family worshiped at Tree of Life for many years, none were in the sanctuary on Saturday morning when Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old man apparently motivated by his hatred of my people, is said to have begun gunning people down while shouting “All Jews must die.”
But 11 of our neighbors were killed. We are waiting to hear their names. My family will certainly know most if not all of them.
My parents, my sisters and my aunts and uncles will attend many funerals this week. That’s because Squirrel Hill functions like an urban shtetl.
In most American cities, Jews tend to live in the suburbs. Not so in Pittsburgh, where more than half of the Jewish community still lives in the city, mainly in Squirrel Hill. And unlike in other urban centers, like Los Angeles or New York, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is small enough that we don’t stay in our religious and political lanes. When I spoke last weekend at my grandparents’ Reform synagogue in my hometown, there were liberal and conservative, Reform and Orthodox, American and Israeli-born Jews who waited to hug me — and argue with me — after. That’s Pittsburgh.
There is a phrase in the Talmud that has always felt especially relevant to our community: kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. All of Israel is responsible for one another. For us that is not a lovely theory but a lived reality.
As with many synagogues in America, the doors to Tree of Life and Pittsburgh’s other shuls on Saturday mornings did not have any security and were open to all comers. We live according to our values — the ones that the accused appears to despise.
One of the alleged shooter’s obsessions on social media was HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization originally founded in the late 1800s to resettle Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Today it rescues Jews and non-Jews facing persecution all over the world.
A few weeks ago, Bowers shared a link to an event called Refugee Shabbat, a national initiative organized by HIAS, of which Tree of Life was a participating synagogue. “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” he wrote on a social networking site often used by alt-right activists and white nationalists.
Just this morning, he posted: “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The heartbreaking coincidence is that the Jewish emphasis on the open door, on welcoming the stranger, is exactly what the Jews of Tree of Life and the Jews of every synagogue big and small in every far-flung corner of the globe were reading about this Shabbat morning.
They were reading from the chapters of Genesis we refer to as Vayera. The Torah portion opens on Judaism’s founding father and mother: Abraham and Sarah. Three men show up to their tent — strangers — and the couple welcomes them: feeding them, giving them shade and washing their feet.
These strangers come with a shocking message: Sarah, then the ripe age of 90, will bear a child.
Sarah laughs, incredulous. But she soon gives birth to Isaac. And the strangers, tradition teaches us, are not strangers at all, but angels in disguise.
We are living in an age when anti-Semitism is on the rise here at home. You need only think of last year’s chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, or the president’s constant attacks on “globalists,” “international bankers” and “the corrupt media,” all of which are commonly associated with Jews in the minds of anti-Semites. It isn’t at all surprising that these rhetorical tropes have translated into acts of violence — according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 57 percent in 2017 — even if Mr. Bowers also reviled the president as insufficiently nationalist. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” he wrote.
Every Jewish community in America will now have to make sensible decisions about how to ensure that they are not the next victims of such a crime. But those hard choices should not make us forget the core values that make communities like Squirrel Hill what they are: welcoming, big-hearted and profoundly decent. One of the gifts of the Jewish experience in America is that because we have been so welcomed and so safe here, these values have been able to flourish.
Just as every Jewish couple gets married under a canopy open on all four sides — a replica of the tent modeled for us by Abraham and Sarah — so must Jewish communities keep our tents open. This is the true source of our longevity and resilience.
Now the Jews of Pittsburgh join the growing list of communities around the world that have been terrorized by anti-Semitic fanatics, from Kansas City to Brussels to Mumbai to Jerusalem. The heartbreak is indescribable.
But Squirrel Hill, I am certain, will continue to live by the values that the Jews have sustained for more than 2,000 years. They can never be gunned down. PJC
Bari Weiss is a writer and editor for The New York Times’ Opinion section, where this article first appeared.