This year, the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh’s Christmas Party focused on one more religion – Judaism.
The annual party doesn’t usually include a philanthropic component, but the Dec. 15 event doubled as a fundraiser for members of the Jewish community suffering from the effects of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building nearly two months ago.
Since the Oct. 27 slaughter of 11 Jewish worshippers, many people and organizations across the country have worked to raise money and offer donations to the congregations housed within the building, the first responders who put their lives in danger to stop the shooter and the Jewish community that is still reeling.
In Pittsburgh, among the numerous Asian and Asian-American community organizations, a significant number have rallied to offer their support in the form of vigils, benefit events, fundraising drives and statements of solidarity. For many of them, the need to help derived from a connection they felt with members of the Jewish community, both because of the welcome atmosphere Squirrel Hill offered and the undeniable connection that comes from targeted discrimination and persecution, whether in the past or the present.
And for many, the events of that fatal weekend and the acts of solidarity that have followed have created a steel resolve to form an even stronger bond in the Pittsburgh community.
“It’s made all people become more close to each other,” Fanny Spanos, president of the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh and a resident of Squirrel Hill, said. “There will be no more hatred to each other. We’re going to be like a family in the community.”
‘A feeling of solidarity’
When Mike Chen first heard the news of the shooting at Tree of Life, his first instinct was to help. Chen, owner of Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill and a representative of the Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association, was in Chicago at the time but immediately got on the phone, making plans to come back to Pittsburgh and calling his restaurant connections to start making food.
In a matter of hours, members of the association were bringing dumplings, General Tso’s chicken and chicken with broccoli to the police station where officers had responded to the shooting and to the Jewish Community Center — which had become a makeshift triage center for law enforcement and security, people who had witnessed the shooting, people who needed a space to grieve and families who hadn’t yet heard news of their loved ones.
“At least somebody had to do it,” Chen said, looking back on that day. “We’re just a small part, we do whatever we can do, that’s it.”
Since then, Chen and the Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association have raised more than $3,000 to help both the police officers who were at the scene and the victims and their families.
Following the shooting, many of the Chinese restaurants and businesses along Forbes and Murray avenues placed a letter in the windows of their stores to show their support and solidarity. The letter was printed in both Chinese and English to connect the two communities and make sure everyone was included, Chen said.
The letter expressed gratitude to the Jewish community for embracing immigrants and helping them to thrive in Pittsburgh, whether through business or simply a friendly and welcoming face.
“They said, ‘We are successful because of this kind of receiving from this community,’” Marian Lien, executive director of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, said. “If we shared in the fortune of this neighborhood, as the Chinese saying goes, then we also share in the burden.”
Many organizations who led fundraising efforts to “share in the burden” are still looking for the best way to help — waiting to hear from people within the Jewish community where that money could best be used and what else they need.
“Asians, for the most part, it is culturally that we don’t step forward and then demand that you do what we want to help you,” Lien said. “It’s more in line that we step back and let you know that we’re here in any which way you want us to be.
“The Asian community, while we’re very diverse, there is a great feeling of solidarity with you, because we know it could have been us.”
Lien moved to Pittsburgh eight years ago and knew within one day of visiting the city that her family would be living in Squirrel Hill.
“This is a neighborhood that knows each other, this is a neighborhood that takes the time to say hello,” she said. “I believe there is a respect for neighbors. We might not know each other but there’s a respect that goes beyond tolerance and I think that’s the backbone that makes Squirrel Hill great.”
Waiting for a ‘copycat’
Khara Timsina, executive director of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, said his organization also felt “an urgent need to jump into shepherding another community,” because of the support his community had received as they were settling into their lives in Pittsburgh.
From providing help with housing, family support and education, to offering support and condolences after the first suicide in the local Bhutanese community, Timsina said Jewish Family and Community Services in particular has gone “way beyond what was required.”
To show their support, Timsina and leaders of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh organized a candlelight vigil on the first Shabbat following the shooting to honor the victims and recognize the first responders. About 300 people came to the event, which featured speeches from the mayors of Baldwin and White Hall, the school district superintendent and many faith leaders.
“Everyone expressed that we needed it,” Timsina said. “Soon after the incident people started asking me ‘what can we do?’ The candlelight vigil was something I had already planned, so I just threw the idea, and everyone jumped in.”
When Timsina first heard the news of the shooting, he was shocked. Then, he was scared.
“We did not expect this to happen,” he said. “Our idea of America, our understanding of America before coming here was something different, completely different — that we would not see violence here. But then when these [things] happen it’s really difficult to say America is a great country.
“It happened there, but we felt that it happened to our own community.”
The Bhutanese community is beginning to take more precautions, Timsina added, making sure doors are locked or security is present whenever there is a large gathering of people.
Chen said members of the Chinese community are beginning to have the same discussions. So far, they have hired two security guards for the Chinese school, which meets every Sunday at Allderdice High School.
“Everybody got scared, I think. A lot of people don’t want to go to a place where so many people are there. I even tell my wife, ‘Careful, don’t go to the church on Sunday for a couple weeks,’” Chen said.
“If you see somebody strange, pay attention; that’s all you can do. … You just never know, there’s a lot of copycat out there and you never know.”
‘A wish for a more peaceful future’
As groups continue to hold events in honor of the victims and collect donations to help those who were affected, many say they’re still looking to find the best use of their time and money. Leaders from several organizations have been meeting with one another and with leaders from the Jewish community to discuss how to move forward.
They’re working on finding the best way to strengthen the Jewish community and Squirrel Hill as a neighborhood, said Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
“It has been and could have been any of our communities, and that’s why it’s so important we stand together,” he said. “People who hate a group of people don’t only hate one group of people. … It’s really important that we’re all aware that even though this happened to hit the Jewish community at this time, it could be any one of us at any time.”
Pittsburgh’s Indian community of various religions also showed their support to the Jewish community. On the last night of Chanukah, Dec. 9, the Hindu and Jain Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh held a ceremony called “World is One Family” at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills. It began with the lighting of a large menorah by Rabbi Barbara Symons, spiritual leader of Temple David, along with other rabbis. The event included Hindu prayers and songs for peace as well speakers representing a variety of religions, including Sayles. It concluded with a simple Indian meal shared by all in attendance.
Separately, representatives of the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara presented the Federation with cards and flowers, as well as a book composed of notes of support from Sikhs around the world.
In a similar gesture of solidarity, the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania has been working to create and collect 1,000 paper cranes, a cherished tradition that people use in Japanese culture when giving gifts or well wishes to a loved one.
“We decided to go for something that was more symbolic as a wish for a more peaceful future,” Amy Boots, executive director of the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania, said. “Not just peace for the future but for going forward and peace for the community as well.”
In Japanese culture, Boots said, the number 1,000 is significant as a symbol of longevity. Generally, after collecting the paper cranes, it is traditional to string them together. In this case, the group is discussing veering from tradition to pinpoint another significant number — collecting the cranes and arranging them in 11 vases. PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt is a former staff member of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.