This city bowed its head in grief, in prayer, in doubt and in fear this weekend.
The grief was for the dead, 11 at last count in the synagogue shooting just down the street. The prayer was for the rest of us, left numb and bewildered and bent limp by unendurable loss. The doubt was for the erosion of confidence that a civilization based on the centuries-old conceit of openness can so endure. And the fear was for what might come next, in some other neighbourhood, in some other community, in some other house of worship, or school, or shopping mall.
If the story of the American Jewish community is an extraordinary tale of resistance and resilience, anguish and achievement, then the story of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is even more remarkable. It was here that immigrant Jews built a home during gritty Industrial Revolution days, that Reform Judaism planted perhaps its deepest roots, that − perhaps alone among American cities − Jewish life did not migrate to the fresh clean suburbs but remained urban, plucky, streetwise.
‘’Pittsburgh, and especially Squirrel Hill, was the centre of Jewish identity not only for Pittsburgh but in a way for the entire country,’’ Steven R. Weisman, author of The Chosen Wars, the latest history of Jews in America, said in an interview. ‘’It is not possible to discuss American Jewry without discussing Pittsburgh.’’
Jewish life in Pittsburgh is planted in Squirrel Hill, where Tree of Life is one of but a dozen synagogues in a square mile. Here, the parade to prayer of Orthodox Jews down Wightman Street on Friday nights and Saturday mornings is unremarkable. Here, the Jewish Community Centre is actually the community centre, frequented by men and women of all faiths, 40 per cent of them not Jewish. ‘’We will stay to our regular schedules as much as possible,’’ Brian Schreiber, the centre president, said Saturday evening.
Here, the story is told of how a Protestant minister marked the founding of Tree of Life by attending the ceremonies in 1883, and then marked it again a quarter-century later when the congregation moved to a new venue. Here, the streets were clogged with mourners Saturday night for a vigil, organized in large measure by high-school students, after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, and the mystery was why one of the most prominent rabbis was missing. He was attending a wedding. Jewish tradition dictates that joy supersedes tragedy.
And here, the local politicians take out new-year’s advertisements at Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish newspaper because not to do so would make them conspicuous by their absence.
‘’We are the heartbeat of Squirrel Hill,’’ said Jim Busis, chief executive and publisher of the Jewish Chronicle, which can trace its origins to the 1890s. ‘’Some of our readers are professionally involved with Jews. Some of them are people who are just interested. And if you want to see ads for the restaurants in Squirrel Hill, we are the place.’’
All that − the kosher establishments on Murray Avenue, the Judaica shops on Forbes Avenue, the jeweller closed on Saturdays but open on Sundays, one of the few Dunkin’ Donuts in the country (and almost certainly the only Italian ice emporium) regularly inspected by rabbis, the clocktower with Hebrew letters at the centre of Squirrel Hill − gave a sense of security to the Jews who lived in the neighbourhood. It was, in the argot of the contemporary campus, a safe place.
It has been for more than a century. No one thought it remarkable that David Zubik, the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, and Aaron Bisno, the rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, last year led a pilgrimage to Rome and Israel.
Today, Squirrel Hill is slightly more diverse − no longer, as piano instructor Jeffry Harris puts it, ‘’a Jewish ghetto where the high school had a totally Jewish feel’’ − but the Jewish character remains. The non-Jews in the area pronounce Yiddish words correctly, a task their Jewish neighbours do not always master. On Sukkot, the harvest-oriented holiday that this year was marked between Sept. 23 and Sept. 30, it is not unusual to see a street crowded with sukkahs, the temporary structures built during the holiday. And on snowy December days, many automobiles crawl along the white-dusted streets with large menorahs, the candelabras used in Hanukkah observances, on the roof.
‘’This community is strong enough to survive this,’’ said Rabbi Keren Gorban of Temple Sinai, just a few blocks from Tree of Life. ‘’But this is an all-too-common event in all of our communities.’’
But of course it is this community that is hurting now. Two of the victims, the Rosenthal brothers, ages 54 and 59, were special-needs adults for whom Sabbath visits to Tree of Life were anchors in their routine − ‘’an outlet, and source of comfort,’’ according to one of their friends. Both were killed in the choke of gunfire Saturday. One of those injured was Andrea Wegner, a dental hygienist, who took her mother, Rose Mallinger, to services every Saturday. Mrs. Mallinger died there Saturday, at the age of 97.
‘’I knew most of these people,’’ said David Dinkin, 95. For years, he served as executive director of Tree of Life, part of the time as school principal and, for a year after the rabbi died, he conducted the services there. ‘’Some of them, I have known for all my life. One guy called me up a few days ago and asked me why I hadn’t been to temple for a while. I would have gone Saturday, but I woke up too late.’’
The shooting prompted expressions of sadness and calls for civility from political figures across the ideological spectrum and from both parties. But its occurrence so close to vital midterm elections − and coming during the same week as the pipe bombs and a Kroger grocery-store shooting − inevitability added a strain of controversy to the condolences. Two Democratic candidates seeking re-election, Governor Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey, were in Pittsburgh for campaign events, so they had a high profile in the hours after the shooting. President Donald Trump, who stirred controversy when he said that armed guards would have prevented the tragedy, swiftly scheduled a visit to the region.
But pugilists on both sides of the aisle generally came to understand that political debates were for another day. The midterm elections, to be sure, are a week away. The funerals are only days away.
Before Squirrel Hill votes, it must bury its dead.