Rising from the Ashes

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Rising from the Ashes by - Photo by Molly Voit

We cannot, and will, not forget these names:

Joyce Fienberg, 75

Richard Gottfried, 65

Rose Mallinger, 97

Jerry Rabinowitz, 66

Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54

Husband and wife Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86

Daniel Stein, 71

Melvin Wax, 88

Irving Younger, 69

On Saturday, October 27th, at 11:16 AM, I received a text from my youth organization’s chapter president. She wanted to make sure our families were safe because there was an active shooter in a Squirrel Hill synagogue, Tree of Life. At first I took this information with a grain of salt. It was awful what was happening. But I didn’t realize how awful just yet. Throughout the entire day, I received texts from my friends, asking if I was okay.

Word travelled extremely fast. Our friends in Israel even contacted us. I texted my friends that live in Squirrel Hill as well to make sure they were okay, including my best friend, who lives on the same street as the synagogue. Thankfully, she and her family were home and safe at the time.

The day began to unravel more and more. I could not believe this was happening. I was physically shaking all day. Squirrel Hill is my second home. I’m there all the time.

Squirrel Hill is such a tight-knit community, and everyone loves and cares for their neighbors, no matter their race, religion, political stance, or anything else. It’s peaceful and quiet, but vibrant. Often you may see signs that say “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in three different languages.

I have been to many events at the Tree of Life Or L’Simcha synagogue. I was there only a few weeks earlier for some family friends’ 50th wedding anniversary, in the basement/sanctuary where some of the fatalities occurred. My parents got married at that synagogue. It’s right down the street from my camp, Chatham University, and many of my friends’ and family friends’ homes.

One of the victims, Melvin Wax, was the father of my mother’s childhood best friend. Their families were always close, and they still are to this day. Mr. Wax went to shul at Tree of Life every single week. When news of the shootings began, his daughter, my mom’s best friend, could not get in touch with him. She was terrified. They could not find him at any of the hospitals to which the victims were taken. The wait was unbearable, and it made the day feel longer than it was. And when the news finally broke, Mr. Wax’s family, my family, and the entire community was devastated.

This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history.

You hear about these things all the time in the news, and you always feel sympathetic for the people affected. But you never truly understand just how horrible it is until it happens in your own backyard, targeted at your own religious community.

Hatred of Jews dates back centuries, well before WWII. When will enough be enough? It has been about 80 years since the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism is supposed to be a thing of the past, right? Well why isn’t it? Anti-Semitism has absolutely no place in our society today. Usually, I love to talk about my Jewish identity; it’s what makes me unique. However on the day of the shooting, I actually was afraid to express my Judaism. I have never felt afraid to express my identity in my entire life, and I pray that I will never have to again.

After all, Pittsburgh has always been a very safe city, but I no longer felt safe. A synagogue is a place of worship and community, not violence and fear. Guns do not have a place there. Congregants should feel safe in a synagogue; they never expected any of this to happen.

On Sunday, October 28th, 2018, my family and I attended a vigil at our synagogue, Temple Ohav Shalom. We had two armed guards, one of whom is a member of the Jewish community. I was not afraid to go to my temple though. My family has been members there for almost 18 years. It’s my home. I was pleased to see almost the entire sanctuary filled.

Later that day, my family and I attended the interfaith vigil at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. It was heartwarming to see the literal overflow of support from our community and city for their neighbors. Many city officials and members of the clergy (including my rabbi) were there, and some gave inspiring messages of hope and love. The president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, sent a video showing his support. The organizers projected an Israeli flag next to an American flag, along with the message “We support you — Pittsburgh!” over an image of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Pittsburgh’s hometown hero Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Even in the darkest of times, someone will always be there to lend a helping hand, even if that hand is a simple conversation or a message of support. I want all of you to be those helpers. Rise above hatred while bringing others in need up with you.

I believe nothing will change unless we do. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” This struck something in me. I realized that we are the future. If we don’t want anything like this to happen in the future, that’s our job to ensure it. We must work so that future generations don’t have to contact their friends to make sure they’re alive. Just as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Do not shrug this off.

Although this tragedy on Saturday, October 27th, was a blatant act of anti-Semitism, it has brought our community closer together. We are stronger now. We are the Steel City. You can’t break a city made of steel.

Today, in this unbreakable city of steel, more than ever, I am proud to be a Pittsburgher, a fourth generation one at that. Today more than ever, I am proud to be a Jew. Today more than ever, I am proud to be a Jewish Pittsburgher.

יחד אנחנו חזקים משנאה

Yachad anachnu chazakim m’sinah.

Together we are stronger than hatred.

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