Rising from the ashes — countering anti-Semitism and hatred with community, love
For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Jessica Daninhirsch. I am a freshman at North Allegheny. For those of you that do know me, you probably know how often I talk about my Jewish identity.
On Saturday, Oct. 27, at 11:16 a.m., I received a text from my youth organization’s chapter president. She wanted to make sure our families were staying safe because there was an active shooter in a Squirrel Hill synagogue. At first I took this information with a grain of salt. It was awful what was happening. But I didn’t realize how awful just yet. Throughout the entire day, I received texts from my friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, asking if I was OK. I texted my friends who live in Squirrel Hill as well to make sure they were OK. I have so many friends in Squirrel Hill. My best friend lives on the same street as the synagogue. Thankfully she and her family were home and safe at the time. Word traveled extremely fast. Our friends in Israel even contacted us.
The day began to unravel more and more. I could not believe this was happening. I was physically shaking all day. Squirrel Hill is my second home. I’m there all the time. If you have ever been to Squirrel Hill, you probably know that everyone who lives there is like one big family. It’s such a tight-knit community, and everyone loves and cares for their neighbors, no matter their race, religion, political stance or anything else. It’s peaceful and quiet, but vibrant. Often you may see signs that say “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in three different languages. I have been to many events at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue. I was there only a few weeks ago for some family friends’ 50th wedding anniversary, in the basement/sanctuary where some of the fatalities occurred. My parents even got married at that synagogue. It’s right down the street from my camp, Chatham University and many of my friends’ and family friends’ homes.
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I’m going to introduce a term called “Jewish geography.” This is when Jews in a certain area know many other Jews in the area. They have many connections to almost everyone. They say there are only six degrees of separation, but for Jews, it’s more like two degrees. My family had connections to several of the victims. One of the victims was the father of my mother’s childhood best friend. That is how close to home this tragedy hit.
You hear about these things all the time in the news, and you always feel sympathetic for the people affected or nearby. But you never truly understand just how horrible it is until it happens in your own backyard. Especially when targeted at your own religious community.
This tragedy was clearly a blatant act of anti-Semitism.
Jews have always been hated; just look at World War II. But we are just like you. We believe in what we believe in, and you believe in what you believe in. When will enough be enough? It has been about 80 years since the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism is supposed to be a thing of the past, right? Well why isn’t it? Anti-Semitism has absolutely no place in our society today. As I said before, I love to talk about my Jewish identity. It’s what makes me unique. However on that Saturday, I actually was afraid to express my Judaism. This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history. I have never felt afraid to express my identity in my entire life, and I pray that I will never have to again.
Then there is the topic of gun control.
Pittsburgh is in general one of the safest cities in the country. I have seen a lot of people post things where they scratch out “thoughts and prayers,” and replace it with policy and change. Well, guess what? Just simply posting that and doing nothing else is basically the same as just thoughts and prayers. It does not do much help unless people actually vote. If you want your post to come true, that is the only way.
However, in my view, gun control during the Squirrel Hill shooting was not talked about enough. On the news, our very own president had the audacity to blame the synagogue. He said that if the synagogue had armed security guards, this tragedy would not have happened. None of that is true. You cannot blame the victim. He said nothing else about gun control or anti-Semitism.
A synagogue is a place of worship and community, not violence and fear. Guns do not have a place there. Congregants often feel safe in a synagogue; they never expected any of this to happen. Currently, many people are taking precautions. If you don’t listen to me today, I just ask you to listen to what former President Barack Obama said: “All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love or pray differently. And we have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.”
On Sunday, Oct. 28, my family and I attended a vigil at our synagogue, Temple Ohav Shalom. We had two armed guards, one of whom is a member of the Jewish community. I was not afraid to go to my temple though. My family has been a member there for almost 18 years. It’s my home. I was pleased to see almost the entire sanctuary filled with people.
Later that day, my family and I attended the interfaith vigil at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. We got there an hour early and already the hall was filling fast with thousands of people. Many had to stand along the sides or in the lobby. People even had to stand outside on the lawn in the rain. It was heartwarming to see the literal overflow of support from our community and city for their neighbors. Many city officials and members of the clergy (including my rabbi) were there, and some gave inspiring messages of hope and love. The president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, sent in a video showing his support. They even projected a flag of Israel next to the flag of America, along with the message, “We support you — Pittsburgh!” on the Western Wall, the holiest spot in Jerusalem.
We cannot and will not forget these names: Joyce Fienberg, 75. Richard Gottfried, 65. Rose Mallinger, 97. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66. Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54. Husband and wife Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86. Daniel Stein, 71. Melvin Wax, 88. Irving Younger, 69.
Eleven people. One more than a minyan. A minyan is a group of 10 men or women above b’nai mitzvah age required to complete a worship service or Torah study. These innocent congregants were shot and killed in a senseless act of violence simply because they were Jewish. It’s not like they were doing any harm. They were doing what they always do. Going to shul on Shabbat. Shabbat. The holy day.
Although this event was a terrible and tragic act of pure hatred, it has brought our community closer together. We are stronger now. We are the Steel City. You can’t break a city made of steel.
Melvin Wax was the father of my mother’s childhood best friend. Their families were always close, and they still are to this day. Mr. Wax went to shul at Tree of Life every single week. When news of the shootings began, his daughter (my mom’s best friend) could not get in touch with him. She was terrified. They could not find him at any of the hospitals to which the victims were taken. The press withheld portions of the news for so long. The wait was unbearable and it made the day feel longer than it was. On Sunday, in the middle of the day, I thought to myself, “How could this only have happened yesterday? It feels like it happened months ago.” And when the news finally broke, Mr. Wax’s family, my family and the entire community was devastated. Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s taken from you.
Many of my mother’s old friends from law school or even high school that she hadn’t talked to in years reached out to her to send their condolences. This goes to prove that even in the darkest of times, people will come together despite their differences.
The next time you’re in an argument with a friend, or you haven’t talked to a friend that you used to talk to every day, or you won’t talk to someone simply because they are different than you, start talking to them! One day you are going to regret not talking to them because they’ll be gone and you’ll just have to sit with the few memories you have of them. No matter where you are in the world, if you just start to talk to someone, no matter how different they seem from you, you will always, always find similarities. Humans are all more similar than different.
Even in the darkest of times, someone will always be there to lend a helping hand, even if that hand is a simple conversation.
Back to what I said about posting for policy and change, I still believe nothing will change unless we do. That is why I am writing. This needs to be talked about. This needs to be more than talked about. Something needs to be done. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” This struck something in me. As a Jew living in Pittsburgh right now, I felt a strong obligation to write this piece. I will not stand by and wait for someone else to fix it.
I’m not here to just write about what happened, but to take action and make a change. We, everyone reading this right now, we are the future. If we don’t want anything like this to happen in the future, that’s our job to ensure it. We must work so that future generations don’t have to contact their friends to make sure they’re alive. That’s right. I called my friends and my friends called me to make sure we were all alive and OK. My 10-year-old friend texted me and my friends to see if we were OK. He was a block away when the incident occurred. If that doesn’t chill your blood, I don’t know what does.
So I am here to ask you all to help make a change. I ask all of you to donate to the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue. I want to create a committee of students that will create things and develop projects that will raise funds for the synagogue and the families affected. We could place tzedakah (charity) boxes in every homeroom. We could plant trees in Israel. I have created a Google form for students to sign up.
Hometown hero Fred Rogers said, “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.’” I want all of you to be those helpers. Rise above hatred while bringing others in need up with you.
If there’s anything I want you to take away from this piece, it would be: Tell your family to vote, respect and love your neighbors and people of all religions, races, humanities, languages or anything different than yourself, listen to the refugee signs all around Squirrel Hill and welcome everyone, talk to people and connect with them before they’re gone, end anti-Semitic stigma, let no name be forgotten, donate, and be the change you wish to see in the world. Do not shrug this off. Today, in this unbreakable city of steel, more than ever am I proud to be a Pittsburgher. A third generation one at that. Today more than ever am I proud to be a Jew. Today more than ever am I proud to be a Jewish Pittsburgher.
Together we are stronger than hatred. pjc
Jessica Daninhirsch is a freshman at North Allegheny Intermediate. A version of article was first published by the NA Eye student news website.