The following is an essay from Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on Tragedy, a collection of Pittsburgh writers reflecting on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Growing up in Squirrel Hill, Jewish life can be indiscernible from life as a typical Pittsburgher. We did not have to be one way or the other; you could be a Jew and a Pittsburgher at the same time. We belonged in this place. Squirrel Hill’s Jews, like its other diverse residents, shop at Giant Eagle, have breakfast at Eat’n Park, and don the Steelers’ black and gold on game days. Squirrel Hill, I thought, was just one of Pittsburgh’s distinct neighborhoods—it just happened to be where the majority of the city’s Jews lived. That didn’t mean it wasn’t special—we celebrated being the center of the region’s Jewish community, but we also took pride in being Mr. Rogers’s real-life neighborhood, in the business district along Forbes and Murray Avenues that rivaled any other in the city, and in having Pittsburgh’s largest inner-city park.
Jewish life, it seemed, was natural to the neighborhood. Massive synagogues like Beth Shalom and Poale Zedeck fit into the landscape as though they were part of the hills they were built on. Jewish stores like Murray Avenue Kosher, Milky Way, and Pinsker’s provided offerings not available anywhere else in the city. High up on the Jewish Community Center, at the corner of Forbes and Murray, a massive clock with Hebrew letters rises above the street. During Hanukkah dozens of vehicles are adorned with menorahs for a holiday parade.
Living most of the twenty-six years of my life in this environment made the atrocity on October 27, 2018, at Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha Synagogue all the more painful. The world will never be able to replace the innocent Jewish lives lost to hatred that morning. Still, there was more taken from us that day than the lives of the eleven martyrs. The massacre was first and foremost an attack on Jews, an offense against the very fiber of who we are and the idea that we belong. But it was also an assault on our beloved neighborhood and the city where we had sanctuary for generations. Like the glass that was broken at the entrance of the synagogue, the belief that Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh could be immune to such evil was shattered.
My father’s side of the family moved from the Hill District to Squirrel Hill in the early 1960s. I was six years old when my parents, brother, and I moved there from Highland Park, where my mother was from. I was raised on Aiello’s pizza, and I played at Blue Slide Park. I attended Taylor Allderdice High School, where I first became interested in journalism while working on the student newspaper, the Foreword. I went to Point Park University in downtown Pittsburgh, earned a degree in journalism and mass communications, and spent two summers as an intern at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. In 2014 I landed a job as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
On the day of the shooting I woke up to a phone call from former Post-Gazette entertainment editor L.A. Johnson, who was on duty that morning and had heard a report about an active shooter at Tree of Life come over the police scanner. I dressed as quickly as possible, ran out of my house on Forward Avenue, and drove as fast as I could to the synagogue. But my brain was moving faster. I kept thinking one thing: What am I going to find when I arrive? I had been a reporter long enough to know that not everything said over the police scanner turns out to be accurate.
Still, this felt different. I kept thinking about my aunt Ellen and uncle Paul Sikov, and their sons, Zachary and Tyler, who belonged to Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha Congregation. I also had friends who attended Tree of Life, and Dor Hadash, one of the other congregations that held services in the building. While I sped along the short distance from my house to the synagogue, something changed inside me. I thought about my relatives and friends who might be in the building.
It took me months to find the right word to describe what I felt in the earliest moments of the massacre, but I eventually determined that it was violation. I felt personally violated, and I felt that my family, as well as my community, had been violated. The attack on Tree of Life was an invasion by callous, conscious evil into a place of warmth and goodness—a place I knew.
After discovering that my friends and family were safe, the reality and horror of the situation began to set in. Here, in Squirrel Hill, the terror that so many communities in the United States and across the world had experienced was now our experience, too. Coming to understand that the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States had happened in this friendly, welcoming neighborhood was not something that I ever imagined having to do. And now not only was that experience real but I was in a position that would require me to explain and contextualize what had happened immediately as well as for generations to come: there is an old expression that says journalism is “the first draft of history,” and I suspected that historians, students, and other interested people would be reading our coverage of the massacre decades later.
As I stood with a group of reporters and photographers outside the synagogue, I watched SWAT officers with long guns running toward the building where I had attended the bar mitzvah ceremonies of friends and relatives, Purim gatherings, and weddings. I had been to countless crime scenes in my work for the Post-Gazette. Each is dreadful in its own way, but they’re especially excruciating when the friends or loved ones of victims are around. I have always tried to show sympathy and understanding to those who have lost people they cared about, but this was the first time I understood what it was like to be one of them. At the time, I still didn’t know if anyone had been killed or injured, but even so, this was an attack against the Jews of Squirrel Hill—my people, my neighborhood.
In the days and weeks that followed, Pittsburgh embraced the city’s Jewish community like never before. Messages of support and shows of solidarity came from nearly all walks of life: Asian Americans and African Americans, Muslims and Christians, musicians, politicians and athletes, and many more. The attack, and Pittsburgh’s response to it, made me even more proud to be a resident of the city. And I am particularly proud to be from Squirrel Hill. Before the massacre, when people asked me where I lived, I would sometimes say the “East End.” It was an answer I could give that would not immediately lead to me being identified as a Jew. People have asked me if I am Jewish on several instances while I was working. Even without saying where I was from, my last name was often a giveaway. I was not ashamed of being Jewish, but I grew to understand that sometimes saying less could save me some trouble. I never experienced hostility, but people would sometimes look at me with suspicion. I am not concerned about that kind of thing anymore, and I am proud to tell people that I’m from Squirrel Hill.
My sense of violation, I believe, came from the emotional toll of the attack. I have never gone through anything that caused me to experience the same range of emotions. There was the initial panic, shock, and horror. Then came the sadness, despair, and anger. Pitts- burgh is, and always has been, a tough community. People around the globe still think of this city as blue-collar even decades after most of the steel mills closed and the jobs left town, and we take pride in that identification. Pittsburgh has also had to cope with its share of sadness from violence. Not even three years before the synagogue massacre, there was a mass shooting in nearby Wilkinsburg in which five people and an unborn child were killed. In 2009, a conspiratorial white supremacist shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers in the Stanton Heights neighborhood. There have been a number of racially motivated acts of violence over the past few decades in and around Pittsburgh.
The summer before the shooting at Tree of Life, Pittsburgh experienced wave after wave of terrible incidents. Because of my job, I was keenly aware of all of them. Racial tensions were at a breaking point in June when Antwon Rose, an unarmed Black teenager, was fatally shot by white East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld. In August 2018 the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office released a grand jury report detailing the appalling abuse of minors by priests and other officials in several Catholic dioceses in the state, including Pittsburgh. Budding rap star Jimmy Wopo was shot and killed in the Hill District. Mac Miller, the world-famous rapper and Allderdice alum, died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles, and I covered his vigil at Blue Slide Park. I graduated from high school with Miller in 2010, and although I wasn’t particularly close with him we shared many mutual friends, and his death shocked me as it did many others.
I was involved in the Post-Gazette’s coverage of many of these stories; each was frightening and depressing, but covering them was my job. Covering the synagogue massacre was different. I have always tried to open myself to those whom I write about, to walk in their shoes, as the old saying goes. But when I answered my phone that morning, and as I drove to the synagogue, my own shoes were sufficient. I never expected to be speeding to a crime scene to find out if my friends and relatives were alive. Speaking to relatives who have lost loved ones, terrified witnesses, or even criminals whose unfortunate circumstances in life led them down the wrong path, takes an emotional toll. I’m a reporter, and that means trying to keep my distance. Of course, reporters are human, and we have become proficient at sticking to the facts despite how we might feel. We cannot afford to become emotionally involved in a story—that can lead to bias, which can compromise the reporting. Sometimes, though, emotions can still overwhelm.
Although I did not directly experience the shooting, and while my family and friends were safe, the massacre was emotionally jarring. I knew some of the victims. I knew the synagogue. I knew the neighborhood and the community and the city. And because of that sense of belonging, I felt as though I were under attack. I was horrified and distraught. How was I supposed to write about this without fear or favor? I stayed outside the synagogue for a few hours that morning, conducting interviews and getting updates from the police department. After I returned home to prepare for what was going to be a long day, I received a call from David Shribman, then the executive editor of the Post-Gazette, who lived on Murray Hill Avenue, just a couple of blocks from Tree of Life. He asked me if I was okay; I lied and said I was. He said that this was going to be difficult, but the community was going to rely on us, and we had a responsibility to do our best work. He was right.
I am often in awe of my colleagues at the Post-Gazette, but I was never more appreciative of them than I was that morning. Photo editor Jim Mendenhall called me to ask if I was all right. I was relieved to see Kris Mamula, a business reporter, as well as photographers Pam Panchak and Alexandra Wimley. Even Sean Gentille, a sportswriter for the Post-Gazette at the time, came to the scene with a notebook and asked me if there was anything he could do. Having some familiar faces there that morning comforted me and made me realize I wasn’t alone as I spoke with neighbors and concerned citizens who arrived at the scene. There was Chuck Diamond, the former Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha rabbi, who speculated that the attack was based in antisemitism. There was Jeff Finkelstein, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who spoke calmly but whose face gave away his worry. I talked to a man who was hysterical because he thought he had family members inside the synagogue, and who directed some of his anger at the media. It was upsetting, but it was not the first time someone had become upset at journalists asking questions and photographing a crime scene. I told him that we were all trying to figure out what was happening, we were all going to get through this together. I saw him a day or two later and asked him about his family members. He said they were all right.
After the shooting stopped and the bloodshed ended, the shock was just beginning to set in. For most of the day I stayed outside the synagogue, searching for people to talk to and trying to make sense of what had occurred. That evening, as people started to leave and the media frenzy outside calmed, I called the newsroom to ask if there was anything else I could do before the day was over. The editor who answered the phone, Lillian Thomas, who had coordinated much of the Post-Gazette’s efforts that day and over the course of the next few weeks, told me that I could go home. As I milled around the synagogue, getting ready to leave, I realized I had nowhere to go. I was in Squirrel Hill. I was already home. What was I going to do, drive five minutes away and wait for the next morning?
Word spread that there was going to be a vigil at the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues. The Allderdice students who had organized the event felt that people needed somewhere to go that night— and they were right. I decided to go. I stood on the edge of the lawn outside the Sixth Presbyterian Church, overlooking the intersection filled with thousands of mourners feeling the same way. There were short speeches and prayers; many people held signs. I saw colleagues, friends, and family members, including my aunt, uncle, and cousins who belonged to Tree of Life. It was comforting to be there, surrounded by the community, sharing our grief. And yet it was so strange to be in a place so familiar with so many strangers all feeling the same way.
A light rain fell. As I looked out into the crowd I noticed a sign among the umbrellas that read Love Thy Neighbor. The sign appeared like a beacon amid the otherwise dreary scene. While I was waiting for the vigil to begin, I overheard the people standing next to me point out landmarks in the surrounding area that were important to them. They were not from Squirrel Hill, but their experiences were similar to my own. They went to the neighborhood’s branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, as I had. They drank at the Squirrel Hill Café, a dive bar known locally as the “Squirrel Cage,” as I had. Although I was from Squirrel Hill and they were not, we shared this neighborhood.
The week that followed was a great challenge to my journalistic professionalism. While I was not working during the vigil on the night of October 27 and was able to become part of the crowd, I had to do my job during many of the emotional gatherings over the next several days after the massacre. Reporting and writing helped to get me through them. Having a goal to accomplish—trying to make sense of it all for our readers and myself—was therapeutic. The difficulty, however, was that while my job required me to be an impartial observer, I also want- ed to participate in the commemorations as a member of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community. Even in small moments, emotions become overwhelming. The morning after the shooting, I was in the newsroom when the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office released the identities of the victims. I sat with reporter Ashley Murray, and I read and spelled out the names of the eleven deceased victims as she typed them. Already troubled, I became more so as I recognized some of the names on the list.
Later that day, as I walked along Murray Avenue, I saw a sign on the door of Pinsker’s that read Closed Because of Yesterday.
On Tuesday, October 30, President Donald Trump came to Pittsburgh to pay his respects at the synagogue. I was assigned to cover a rally and march protesting his presence. As the crowd began forming, I spotted a friend I had not seen since high school. His family had belonged to Tree of Life. I tried to talk to him, but he was too upset to speak. I asked him if he knew some of the victims, and he nodded. As the rally began, the leaders began singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh.” The song, which alternates Hebrew and English, is about building a world with love, words from Psalm 89:3. As the group began march- ing slowly from Beechwood Boulevard to Forbes Avenue and then to Shady Avenue, the song became seared into my mind. I don’t know if it was the song or the moment, but reality finally set in. The tears flowed uncontrollably, and I don’t think I was alone, even among the media. I tried to call into the newsroom with some information from the rally, but I was unable to get words out of my mouth.
I did not have another experience as intense as that in the rest of that first week after the shooting, but there were other moments that left me breathless. On Thursday, November 1, I was standing next to the desk of my editor, Tom Birdsong, when he pulled up an early rendering of the front page of the Friday edition of the Post-Gazette. That was the first time I saw the headline that would be seen worldwide: the mourner’s Kaddish, in Hebrew letters across the top of the front page of the newspaper. My jaw dropped when I saw it, and I couldn’t wait to see it in print the next day. More than anything, that headline is what people ask me about when I talk about the Post-Gazette’s coverage of the massacre. David Shribman was responsible for it, and he wrote a small piece to explain what it meant. He also told readers that when you cannot find the right words to express the enormity of a situation, perhaps you have to think in a different language.
The same day that edition of the paper came out, Friday, came the first Shabbat services after the shooting. I was assigned to the large community service at Rodef Shalom, while my colleague, Post-Gazette religion editor Peter Smith, went to the private Tree of Life service held in another chapel in the same building. Our editors decided that we should wrap all of our material into one story. When the service ended, I went back to the newsroom to begin to write my portion. Peter sent his information to me, and I began putting everything together. Part of the way through, I once again became overwhelmed with grief. I walked over to editor Liz Gray, who told me to just breathe, and assured me I would get it done. And so I did.
Over the course of the next year I covered many stories relating to the shooting in one way or another. Some were more hopeful. I wrote about the windscreens covered by student artwork that were placed over the fence surrounding the Tree of Life building, bringing some light back to what had become a dark corner. Others were more stressful. Exactly six months to the day from the massacre, a gunman opened fire at the Chabad of Poway, near San Diego. I happened to be working that day, and out of nowhere the horror rushed back to me as I followed the coverage on the newsroom televisions and on social media. I went to a vigil that night outside Tree of Life, attended by several survivors of the Pittsburgh shooting, including Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. The sadness was palpable. It was dark and raining lightly when the vigil began. Rabbi Myers and Mayor Bill Peduto both spoke briefly, rebuking intolerance and gun violence. The vigil, however, felt absent of any real hope that the madness would stop.
As October 2019 approached, the Post-Gazette prepared to mark the one-year commemoration of the shooting. I was assigned several stories that required me to interview many of the people who were closely involved in the massacre, some of whom I had already met or spoken to at various times throughout the year. But there was still so much of the story that hadn’t been told. These people had experienced a trauma most people never will, and never should. Yet they were all regular people, with jobs and families, who never brought any attention to themselves until they were thrust into something totally out of their control that made them well known overnight. One of the survivors I interviewed told me about how the media had hounded him for months after the massacre, when he was in no condition or mood to participate. I felt bad because I, in fact, had asked this man to speak with me on multiple occasions in the months prior to him granting an interview at his home. I had been feeling badly for months, wondering if I had gone too far with him and others I tried to interview. Journalists are used to tracking down and seeking interviews with people who are going through hardships, because those people are able to provide a perspective into the harsh realities of the world that few others can. Still, it is easy for reporters to feel guilty after speaking with a vulnerable person and publishing their emotions and thoughts for the world to see. I know I have felt that way. I told the man I was interviewing that I hoped he did not feel like I was a part of the media that had been bothering him. He said no, and it was as though a great weight was lifted off my shoulders.
Despite the unwanted attention, the belief in Judaism and in community that brought these people to the synagogue on October 27, 2018, remains, and their conviction for warning the world about in- tolerance and remembering the friends they lost struck me as a noble endeavor. Still, it was easy to see the toll it had taken on them. What happened at Tree of Life changed everyone it touched. Some of the people who survived the shooting were left with physical wounds that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Everyone who was there lost friends. People who were in the synagogue and countless people in the extended community suffer from mental health issues related to the shooting. But for me, as well as others, it also created a stronger sense of community and a desire to serve, through volunteering, charity, or simply trying to be a nicer person in daily life.
One of the articles I wrote as we approached the one-year mark since the shooting was about the many opinions on what should be done with the Tree of Life building. People have many different ideas, and the emotions around this subject are strong. What concerns me is that whatever is decided will not make everyone happy. No matter what happens, I hope the outcome does not drive the community apart. Another story was about Dor Hadash and its members’ actions for social justice. One of these, a service called “Refugee Shabbat,” in partnership with Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an immigrant and refugee advocacy group, had likely prompted the racist, antisemitic gunman to seek out the congregation. The members of Dor Hadash wanted to be informed on refugee issues and learn how they might help those in need. The gunman, rabid in his hate, wanted to stop them from doing that work. But he couldn’t stop the members of Dor Hadash. Their bravery in the face of evil has been inspirational to me. They did not give in to fear. They are now stronger than ever in their conviction for social justice. The gunman’s brutality only brought more attention to the efforts he attempted to destroy. The only thing that should be remembered about the gunman was that he ultimately failed in his mission.
On a Saturday morning in early 2005, I went to the Tree of Life synagogue to attend the bar mitzvah ceremony of Zachary Weiss, a friend from middle school who remains a close friend to this day. One of the topics of his ceremony that stood out to me was l’dor v’dor, Hebrew for “from generation to generation.” The expression represents the responsibility that Jewish people have to pass our religion and heritage on to future generations. Jewish history is full of beautiful tradition and astounding people worth remembering. But it’s also important to take away more difficult lessons from the past. The push to remember the Holocaust remains strong seventy-five years after Auschwitz was liberated. It is necessary to remember the Holocaust, but it is also vital to remember the years of bigotry against the Jewish people of Europe, which created the environment allowing it to occur. I often think about how important it is to remember what happened here in Pittsburgh and the reasons, however senseless, that it happened. Antisemitic bigotry still exists in dark and light places alike. Since the massacre at Tree of Life, the United States has experienced a rash of antisemitic violence. There was, of course, the shooting at Chabad of Poway. There was also a shooting that targeted a kosher store in Jersey City, and a stabbing spree at a rabbi’s house outside of New York City on the seventh night of Hanukkah in 2019, not to mention countless assaults and slurs directed at Jewish people—particularly those in the Orthodox community—that have been reported over the past year. Europe may have an even bigger antisemitism problem than the United States. If we do not learn from the past, we might be forced to repeat it. In Squirrel Hill, we now have seen what antisemitism and racial intolerance can do when it is unleashed. Just as the Holocaust survivors once warned my generation, those of us who saw what happened at Tree of Life must tell those who come next.
One of the survivors of the massacre asked me if I thought people would remember what happened at Tree of Life. I still believe what I told him: some people will remember. As a reporter, I will do my best to make sure more people remember. I don’t know what opportunities there will be in the future for me to do that, but I will take advantage of the ones I can. That is now my responsibility. That is now my job.
“Closed Because of Yesterday” by Andrew Goldstein from Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on Tragedy edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji, (c) 2020. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Header photo by Grace Yagel.