The jarring experience of anti-Semitic violence hitting your childhood home

The jarring experience of anti-Semitic violence hitting your childhood home
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When I heard that there was an active shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue early Saturday morning, I froze. I grew up in Squirrel Hill, about five blocks from the Tree of Life congregation, where the media were already reporting several fatalities.

Squirrel Hill’s Jewish community is tight-knit, an interwoven web in which everyone seems to know everyone. A little tug in any one corner of the web quickly reverberates throughout the whole thing. And here, a rock had been thrown right through it.

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Despite not living there for 17 years, I understood immediately that if I didn’t know the victims personally, there would not be more than one degree of separation between us. 

It’s jarring to see your childhood neighborhood’s name trending on Twitter, as national news outlets and presidents, past and current, speak its name. It’s odd to think that one hateful man’s actions will associate the community’s name forever more with tragedy. It’s bewildering to see your home transform before your eyes from the place you went to school and played in the park and hung out with your friends into a synonym for horror, the freshest entry on a tragic list.

Aliza Levitt Gillman, a native Pittsburgher who moved to Israel in 1997, said she was keenly aware of how the event would change people’s perception of her hometown.

“When people in Israel ask where I’m originally from, and I tell them Pittsburgh, I’m usually met with a blank look,” she wrote on Facebook. That, she realized, will no longer be the case.

“My heart is breaking as to why Pittsburgh is in the spotlight, that old friends are checking in as ‘safe,’ watching my former community struggle to come to terms with this horrific massacre and am simply devastated to see what is happening in my former home,” she wrote. 

The cognitive dissonance was all the greater because she had been in a terrorist attack shortly after moving to Israel. “I remember thinking ‘this would never have happened to me if I had stayed in Pittsburgh,' ” she recalled. 

On Saturday, I was lucky to quickly learn that my family and close friends were safe. But in the day it took for the victim’s list to become public, as the body count rose to 11, my mind kept racing. Who would it be? A teacher from my elementary school? A neighbor? A friend’s grandparent? Would it be a someone with whom my father played squash at the Jewish Community Center? Someone with whom my family once shared a Passover meal? A member of the dwindling congregation where I had my bar mitzvah, a congregation which had since moved into the Tree of Life synagogue where so many of my friends had their own coming-of-age ceremonies?

American Jews jokingly refer to networking with other Jews as “Jewish Geography,” the mapping out of their common communal connections through synagogues, schools, summer camps, youth groups and family connections. When the victim’s list was finally published Sunday morning, it was the devil’s version of Jewish Geography running through our heads.

For me, the name that stuck out immediately was Joyce Fienberg, a University of Pittsburgh researcher who had been close to some of our closest friends. I don’t remember her well. My mother reminds me that we had hosted their family for dinner on several occasions. Who’d have guessed that she’d end up murdered in temple? 

Then there was Cecil Rosenthal, a special needs member of the community whose name I didn’t recognize at first but whose face I’d seen dozens of times at events, a face everybody in the community knew. Who’d have guessed that he and his brother would be gunned down in their synagogue? There was Jerry Rabinowitz, a doctor who I soon learned had treated many family friends. Who’d have thought that this healer would meet his end so unnaturally?

There were last names that matched members of my high school class, and names I’d never heard before but were all too familiar to the families I know who still attend the place of worship every week.

And suddenly, these local names were on memorial photos and memes being circulated on the Internet, quickly digested by the machine that makes local news national, and even international. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower would go dark for them. In Jerusalem, an image projected on the Western Wall would memorialize for them. In Washington, flags would fly at half staff for them, an abstract list of names and ages that somehow corresponded to the very real faces and smiles and humans that my community was suddenly missing.

For members of that community, Saturday’s shooting by a white nationalist was a frightening escalation in an era of increased anti-Semitism. It was the first mass shooting in a synagogue in the nation’s history.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks anti-Semitism, last year’s 57 percent spike in Anti-Semitic incidents was the largest since they began gathering data in the 1970s. That followed a 34 percent increase the year before.

The ADL says the increase is part of a wider trend.

“We are in the midst of heightened mainstreaming of divisive and often extremist language, the normalizing of hate,” said Oren Segal, director of ADL’s center on extremism. 

For many American Jews, a central lesson of the Holocaust was the need to stand up to discrimination of all kinds, not just discrimination against Jews. In “I didn’t Speak Up,” the famous poem by the Rev. Martin Niemöller that has practically become part of the Jewish canon, the Jews are only targeted after the socialists and the trade unionists.

“The Jewish community is not only impacted by anti-Semitism. Bigotry of any kind, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-LGBT bigotry, racism. It’s one of the reasons that the ADL’s mission is to secure justice for all,” said Segal.

For many, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBroward County official Brenda Snipes submits resignation after criticism Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks MORE’s forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism as “evil” felt at odds with his rhetoric and stance toward other marginalized communities. 

“Whenever an elected official, a public figure, and certainly the individual occupying the highest office speaks out against anti-Semitism, it’s important. But we need elected officials to speak out against anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry before violence occurs,” Segal said.

Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group, gathered over 30,000 signatures on a letter accusing Trump of fomenting hatred and violence, telling him “you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism.”

Tree of Life’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, on the other hand, said the synagogue would always welcome the president of the United States.

“I'm a citizen. He's my president. He is certainly welcome,” he told CNN.

If one thing is clear, it is that the massacre is likely to galvanize Pittsburgh into political action, bolstered by a renewed sense of mission and moral authority. If there’s any reason to take solace in earning a spot on the list of places struck by domestic terrorism next to Newtown and Parkland, Pittsburghers will surely find it there. 

At the vigil organized Saturday night in Squirrel Hill (organized by students from my former high school), the crowd broke into chants of “Vote. Vote. Vote.”

In the Jewish tradition, the great Rabbi Hillel implores action, on behalf of one’s own interest and on behalf of others. 

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” he asks. “And if not now, when?” 

Niv Elis is a staff writer for The Hill who covers the economy.