Pittsburgh – an essay on the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue

By Barbara Jean Heller

Pittsburgh, my home, has been shot in the heart.

On Shabbat morning of October 27, a man walked into a synagogue open to all who would enter. The man, twisted with hate, raised a semi-automatic rifle toward the congregation deep in prayer and squeezed the trigger. People screamed and wailed and ran crazy in all directions — the sturdy ninety-seven year old Rose Mallinger, the beloved Rosenthal brothers, Bernice and Sylvan Simon. When the ear shattering barrage of bullets ceased eleven people lay dead on the well-worn carpeted floor of the Tree of Life synagogue, their sacred house of worship and the man walked out the door. Shema Yisrael!

And the people heard and came from the surrounding streets and cried. And people from beyond that Jewish community of Squirrel Hill heard, people from East End and Mt. Lebanon. The reporters came and the TV cameras. And this horrific act shocked the people from Long Island and Cherry Hill and Florida and California. And the peoples in the broader world heard. And we all wept and sobbed and our tears formed a new sad river for this gentle city. And we were beyond tears.

But what of Squirrel Hill?

I grew up in East End, a section composed of little homes and small businesses that depended on streetcars for transportation. The Jewish community was an active one. Within a few blocks on Negley Avenue you could find the stately B’nai Israel Synagogue where I was confirmed and married. Further down the street was the Orthodox synagogue where my B’nai Brith Girls group met in the basement each Wednesday evening. And dotting the street were two small ultra-orthodox shuls that had been converted from homes. I used to walk my Zayde home from one of them.

Growing up, we East End kids made snide remarks about Squirrel Hill, calling it the Gilded Ghetto because of the preponderance of wealthy Jewish families who lived there. But in truth, we knew it was the heart of the city’s Jewish community and its richness was reflected in a bloom of Jewish life. We had a lot of family there. Uncle Louie had a tailor shop on Forbes Street. Aunt Pearl and Uncle Joe served Thanksgiving dinner every year in their home on Bartlett Street. Both Uncle Irving and Uncle Al lived on Beechwood Boulevard where I had sleepovers with my cousin Faye Ellen.

Murray Avenue was the hub, the Jewish food capital of Pittsburgh. It was there you would come to savor real kishke and kneidlach in Weinstein’s Restaurant. Only on the Avenue could you find a bakery that made corn bread with a good crust. Smallman’s was the place for gigantic pastrami sandwiches served with a fat kosher pickle. Mini-skirted girls and babushked bubbes would meet at the checkout line at the Giant Eagle where the deli counter had a separate case full of kosher prepared foods.

On Murray Avenue, on the second floor of the building that housed the Manor movie theater, were the two small offices and a bathroom of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, a gathering place of gangling adolescent Jewish kids, the Petri dish that grew us into functional young adults.

Yes, and what of Squirrel Hill now? Murray Avenue will still look the same. The BBYO office is still there and the people will continue to go to the Manor and shop at the Giant Eagle and buy pastrami sandwiches at Smallman’s. With our prayers, skilled medical expertise will heal the bodies of the six wounded. The community lives on.

Next Shabbat, the faithful will gather for services at Tree of Life and Rodef Shalom and the other synagogues in Squirrel Hill. But during this week of October 27th, they will gather too, day after day at Ralph Schugar’s Funeral Chapel to mourn two or seven or all eleven of the victims of this massacre. And a pall will settle over the community that will, in time fade but never be gone completely. And Jews in Squirrel Hill and East End and around these United States will be looking over their shoulders with a fleeting thought of Kristallnacht because they could not image that what had happened to the Jews in Germany eighty years ago could ever happen in America. It happened. Gevalt!!!

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu

Editor’s Note: Barbara Jean Heller is a contributing writer to the Mountain News. Although she grew up in Pittsburgh, she is currently the past president of her Kehillath Shalom congregation in New York.

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~                                         Barbara Jean Heller

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8 Responses to Pittsburgh – an essay on the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue

  1. jofannie says:

    Thank you for this. It brought home this tragedy like nothing else did.
    I am passing this on.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Please do, Jofannie. In some ways I consider this tragedy a turning point. I feel so emotionally moved by it that I couldn’t speak at first. When I contemplated calling Barbara Jean on Saturday, I didn’t because I knew I would be able to say anything, only to sob and gasp and struggle for air through my flow of mucus.

  2. I am passing along a remark made to me today….
    ‘The Power of Love’…
    🕊

  3. brucesmith49 says:

    Editor’s Note:

    I wanted to include an email attachment that I sent out to many readers when I first received Barabara’s manuscript of this story. Here it is:

    Greetings Everyone,
    I just felt a need to contact those who know me and might know my ex in NY, BJ. Some of you might know that she grew up in Pittsburgh, and in fact lived in Squirrel Hill where the shooting took place Saturday. I spoke with BJ on Saturday night – such as we could between tears, shock, grief and silence – and I learned that everyone in her extended family is safe, even her cousin who attends the Tree of Life Synagogue where the massacre took place. Her cousin was en route to the synagogue for services today, but stopped at the Post Office first, and by the time he turned the corner to the shule it had already been closed off by the police. Pretty close, I’d say.

    BJ was in such a deep state of shock that she had been able only to return my phone calls at 1 am, her time. We talked a little, and then she asked me about DB Cooper for a bedtime story distraction! A first!!! She said she slept okay, too!

    This tragedy has touched me deeply. I am surprised by the depth of it, but I sense that everything in life is heightened these days, including its dangers.

    How are you all?
    Bruce
    *********************
    Addendum – as I was writing the above I got an email from a friend in New York, triggering the following:
    I feel like something very profound, very deep has transpired. Primal, even. I’m alternating from weeping, to chores, to eating, to writing, to doing dishes.

    A few minutes ago I talked with BJ, again – for the second time today (Sunday) – upon her return from a vigil at her shule in Huntington, NY. Standing Room only. Three cops cars outside, two politicians inside. Members from every faith community on the North Shore of Long Island, including a contingent of Muslims from a mosque, all standing alongside the entire congregation of her Kehillath Shalom.

    I’m not the only one feeling it.

    You?
    Bruce

  4. Paula Morris says:

    Barbara Jean, it is when tragedy hits right between the eyes that we learn the most. You know this of course. I pray for peace for you and your congregation. And Bruce, thank you for sending this heartfelt, gut wrenching account.

  5. Dempsey or Everdell says:

    And the idiot president said the synagogue should have had an armed person to prevent the tragedy. Four armed police officers were shot before the assassin was subdued. H

  6. Bob Kessler says:

    Thanks for sharing. It’s hard to believe
    We’re talking about USA, it can’t happen here???
    Thanks, Barbara.
    As I was reading your Essay, I was walking thru my own experiences
    Which were very similar.
    Peace and Love, Bob

  7. brucesmith49 says:

    Editor’s Note: The following comment came via email from Pat Sparks.

    Wow!
    BJs piece was wonderfully and so warmly written. And the tears are continuing to flow beyond Squirrel Hill, through the entire country and around the world. Such sorrow and loss. I Especially loved the brothers who were best friends and the essence of innocence and love. They lived & died together. The images of the funeral were heart wrenching.

    No matter what our religious beliefs, where we come from, what we look like – we are all connected in our humanity by empathy and love.

    There is so much anger & hatred in this country these days. It’s pulling us apart. This is also so sad. We are better than this and need to support each other, then reach out to those in their pain & anger & help them heal – so we can all heal.

    Thank you for sharing this. And thank you BJ for writing to us.

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