America’s Jews are now having to think about the same security measures that churches have had to take on, now that the term “synagogue shooting” has been added to the sad list of church shootings in recent years.
You’ve seen the headlines. The issue is what happens next and where.
On Saturday, a shooter walked into Tree of Life, a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and by no means the largest synagogue in town. It’s unclear why the killer chose that place, but he left many dead and wounded in his wake and a nation — once again — wondering why we’re becoming a country where worshippers can be gunned down in their pews.
By Saturday night the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a lead story with five bylines:
Eleven people are dead and six more are wounded — including four police officers — after a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood Saturday morning.
The shooter, who officials said had an assault-style rifle and three handguns, is in custody, Pittsburgh police report. Officials have confirmed he is Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin Borough. He is in Allegheny General Hospital in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds, officials said.
Gunfire erupted shortly before 10 a.m. as a baby-naming ceremony was getting underway, officials confirmed.
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said officers were dispatched at 9:55 a.m. He confirmed that there were 11 fatalities, and six injuries, including four police officers. No children were injured, he said. Gov. Tom Wolf confirmed that the incident was being investigated as a hate crime.
The Anti-Defamation League said it believed it was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the U.S. history.
There’s a lot of other articles on the PG’s site, as it appears the newspaper threw every available reporter it could at the story. The day closed with 3,000 people attending a vigil for the dead and wounded at the intersection of Murray and Forbes avenues.
By Sunday, news was out about Gab.com, a chat site the shooter had loaded with anti-Semitic comments. One target of the shooter’s ire was the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) a group that helps Jews — many of whom are in danger in their homelands — immigrate to the United States. The New Yorker had a piece further explaining HIAS.
Where I part ways with the New Yorker is in essays like this one where it connects hate crimes with the current occupant of the White House. I didn’t notice the magazine blaming the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings on the Obama administration but is Donald Trump now automatically responsible for every mass shooting these days, especially when the gunman is an online Trump-hater?
Back to the crisis at hand: For those who’ve never been there, Squirrel Hill is — in many ways — similar to the famous Crown Heights neighborhood in New York, which is packed with Jewish businesses, a Jewish children’s museum and the international headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
Pittsburgh’s plentiful jobs in the coal and steel industries drew a lot of immigrants from Central Europe in the mid-1800s, especially German Jews.
The city’s primary Jewish hub has long been Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood east of downtown that, starting in the 1920s, blossomed with several Jewish day schools, 20 synagogues (at one point), restaurants, a Jewish community center and more. If I was ever in the Squirrel Hill area on a Saturday morning (which was rare but it happened), I could always see Orthodox folks in their black coats and black fedoras on their way to the synagogue.
Peter Smith’s helpful update on local Jews in the Post-Gazette earlier this year shows the number of Jews grew 17 percent in the Steel City since 2002.
The growth came even as Allegheny County, where most of the region’s Jews live, declined 2 percent overall in population.
So why the growth? Look to the familiar mantra: eds and meds.
With technology, medicine and university research driving job growth in and around Pittsburgh, the county is seeing growth among the college-educated, and that’s a category that includes more than 80 percent of the local Jewish population, the report said.
This Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story, which ran last February, stresses how Squirrel Hill is unusual among American cities for having a large Jewish community concentrated in one neighborhood.
The main street through this area is Murray Avenue and I loved dropping by Pinskers, a huge Jewish bookstore near Murray and Beacon Street. USA Today ran this helpful sidebar to help explain the neighborhood.
Squirrel Hill is the Jewish hub of Pittsburgh with more than 50 percent of Greater Pittsburgh’s Jewish community living in or around the neighborhood, said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
"It's a high concentration of the Jewish community," he said. "It makes it very special, actually."
The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition describes it as a once-bustling business district turned "affluent city neighborhood." The coalition boasts nearly a dozen synagogues, ranging from orthodox to conservative, as well as some Jewish religious private schools.
It was also once home to Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers and host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
The New York Times ran this backgrounder about Squirrel Hill.
Tree of Life, an understated temple on a rising street of tidy brick houses and pumpkin-decorated front porches, was a revered and historic Jewish institution in a neighborhood full of them.
After Saturday’s massacre, this meant a grief deep and wide. Everyone knew someone, or someone who did. The Jewish Community Center, a few blocks away from Tree of Life, became a command post of sorts, with grief counselors, law enforcement officials, Red Cross volunteers, extended families, members of various synagogues and food, lots and lots of food…
Squirrel Hill is an old neighborhood, beginning as the quiet and leafy retreat of the better-off, who chose to take the trolley home after work and leave the smog-choked streets of downtown Pittsburgh. Prosperous German Jews followed, moving their temples with them and creating a vibrant culture that, unlike in so many other American cities, never decamped for the suburbs.
What will happen from here?
Knowing the history of anti-Semitism, synagogues around the world are no strangers to the need for security teams.
Lastly, here’s a shout-out to Jewish media that by Sunday had jumped into the fray. The Forward had this piece on a Holocaust survivor whose late arrival to his own synagogue on Saturday is what saved his life. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency had a bunch of pieces, including a statement of sympathy and solidarity from Ivanka Trump.
Lots more to come, obviously.