Mourning Pittsburgh Jews feel unsafe in wake of attacks
Robert Bowers went to the Tree of Life synagogue and shot 11 worshippers dead
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads a gathering in Hanukkah songs outside the Tree of Life synagogue on the first night of Hanukkah, on Sunday, December 2nd, 2018. Photograph: Gene J Puskar
Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill is a bustling, leafy neighbourhood of locally owned shops and large residential brick homes where residents are busily shovelling the first winter snow from their driveways. But it’s a community in mourning.
In countless shop windows and on lawn fronts there are signs bearing slogans such as “Stronger than hate” and “Our hearts cry out for shalom”. City buses passing up Murray Avenue, the area’s main thoroughfare, display the rallying cry “Pittsburgh strong”.
Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue was the scene of the worst anti-Semitic crime in America’s history when, on the morning of October 27th, a truck driver named Robert Bowers walked through its doors and shot 11 worshippers dead. The synagogue’s outdoor memorial has since been moved inside and with its doors locked, the large, grey building makes for a desolate scene under a slate-grey winter sky.
Pittsburgh native Rebecca Remson was at home observing Shabbat when the attack unfolded a five-minute walk away. “My in-laws sent a Whatsapp message to one of our phones asking if we were okay. I happened to see the phone light up and the message on the screen. It was very clear that something happened if they were asking us if we were okay,” she says. During Shabbat, observant Jews do not use electrical appliances.
Alone in the house, Remson, the director of development and communications at the Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS), went outside and walked to her synagogue. She saw Swat cars driving up the main street in the opposite direction to her own house of prayer, the Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill South. “The only people on the streets were religious Jews who didn’t hear about or didn’t understand the magnitude of what had happened.”
On November 13th, a US attorney in Pittsburgh was forced to publicly reassure the local Jewish community following the arrest in Washington DC of Jeffrey Clark, an alt-right activist and alleged friend of Bowers. Clark had written on a social media platform popular with right-wing extremists that the Tree of Life attack was a “dry run for things to come”.
On the ground in Pittsburgh, meeting the needs of those struggling to cope in the aftermath remains a key concern. A cornerstone of community engagement for 80 years, the JFSC was charged with taking the lead in counselling and bereavement support, and it quickly assigned therapists to each of the bereaved families. Two days after the October attack, it had counsellors in all local Jewish day schools, synagogues and other agencies and communities impacted by the tragedy.
Remson says the feeling of safety in the neighbourhood has been lost. “People’s friends were killed at a place that they [the victims] went regularly and enjoyed; the place that they prayed to God, and that was desecrated,” she says.
With Hanukkah under way, the absence of those lost is felt more keenly. “It feels different now that the media is gone,” says Katy Levin, who had her bat mitzvah at the Tree of Life, and whose family has run the Squirrel Hill Flower Shop on Murray Avenue for almost 70 years.
Cecil Rosenthal, who died in the attack along with his brother, David, called to the store daily. “I think there’s been a mixed response [among locals]. A lot of people are saying we have to take it for what it is, that we have to move on,” she says.
The Tree of Life attack wasn’t the first time violent anti-Semitism has struck Squirrel Hill. In 1986, a 24-year-old Canadian Jew was shot dead after leaving a study centre in the neighbourhood. It wasn’t until 2002 that Steven Tielsch, a convicted drug dealer who bore a swastika tattoo on his leg, was found guilty of the murder. Tielsch was released from prison in October 2017.
Levin says she knows of several anti-Semitic incidents having occurred in the Pittsburgh area in recent years, including in the suburb of Mt Lebanon, where police responded to three anti-Semitic messages left in public places last year.
Hundreds of Jewish tombstones were vandalised across Pennsylvania last year, part of what appears to be a broader trend of rising anti-Semitism. In the spring of 2017, Jewish cemeteries were damaged in St Louis, New York and Philadelphia. Last May, more than 200 headstones and monuments were spraypainted with swastikas at a cemetery in Illinois.
Bowers has been indicted on 44 federal counts, including committing hate crimes, and allegedly targeted the Tree of Life synagogue because of its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which assists immigrants, including some among a caravan of people currently travelling through Mexico hoping to enter the US.
As the JFSC is the largest refugee resettlement agency in Pittsburgh, it understood one possible motive for the attack better than most.
But backing from city authorities and other faith groups in Pittsburgh, says Remson, has been hugely encouraging. While she estimates the JFSC has helped to support tens of thousands of people of different faiths and backgrounds, therapeutic and counselling assistance remain in demand, putting growing pressure on its resources.
“The responsibility to help a whole community heal is a huge one. It’s going to take millions of dollars to provide the services people need,” she says.
“When it comes to a crime, an attack like this on the community, the impact is felt for many months and years. It’s not going to go away quickly.”