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The worst day in American Jewish history

Eleven people died the day of the Tree of Life shooting. They died the death of the righteous. They died as kedoshim, as martyrs.

A man places flowers outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2020, the second anniversary of the shooting at the synagogue that killed 11 worshippers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(RNS) — My grandson was born the day after it happened. His name evokes the theme of consolation, and as his father said at his brit ceremony, perhaps this child will serve as a small consolation for what had happened.

What is the “it” that happened? I am referring to the attack on Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — Oct. 27, 2018, exactly three years ago — which left 11 worshippers dead and a Jewish community devastated.

Over the past three years, we have eulogized the dead.

But there is yet another eulogy we have been giving.

It is a eulogy for our naïveté. We thought America was different, which in large measures, it has been. Ours has been the safest Diaspora in Jewish history.

But, not quite. Bari Weiss, who became bat mitzvah at Tree of Life, put it this way: We Jews had been enjoying a holiday from history. The holiday is no more.

We should have known when we saw the mob marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and chanting: “The Jews will not replace us!” (By the way, the civil trial of the perpetrators began this week.)

What happened in Charlottesville was a dress rehearsal for what would happen in Pittsburgh; and then, at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California; and then, at the kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey.

When a Jewish community suffered an organized act of violence, the survivors would create a record. That was the memorbuch. It was the way to remember the lives that were lost, and the life that was lost.

The memorbuch of Tree of Life synagogue comes to us from the hand of Mark Oppenheimer, a very talented Jewish journalist. The book is “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.”

How does this memorbuch unfold before us?

It is a memorbuch with three chapters — with three scrolls, if you will.

The scroll of demography, the scroll of sociology and the scroll of theology.

First, the scroll of demography.

Consider the American Jewish residential pattern.

Bubbe and Zeyde come to the United States. They live in the immigrant neighborhood.

Their children move to the next neighborhood — still urban, but less crowded.

Their children move to the suburbs, to the Garden of Eden, with more land and better schools.

In New York terms: from the Lower East Side, to Brooklyn or Queens; to Long Island. Or, to the Bronx, and to Westchester, then Rockland.

Almost every Jewish community in this country has followed that pattern.

Except, the Jews of Squirrel Hill forgot to do that.

This is what Mark Oppenheimer writes about Squirrel Hill:

Such a Jewish community exists nowhere else in the United States. In other cities, Jews who lived in city centers migrated to the edges, then kept going, out into first-ring suburbs and then — looking for more land, lower taxes, better schools, or perhaps greater distance from nonwhite people — to outlying suburbs ten, twenty, or fifty miles from where their great-grandparents had settled. In other words, most Jewish neighborhoods are typically American, in that they change, with each wave of arrivals displacing the last. But around World War I, Jews came to Squirrel Hill and never left.

Squirrel Hill, almost uniquely in the history of the Jews of the United States, had violated the rules of Jewish demography. They came, and they never left — and because they never left, the generations knew each other and loved each other.

I turn now to the second scroll — the scroll of sociology.

In the months and years after the assault on Tree of Life, I spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh. I served as the guest scholar in residence at Rodef Shalom Congregation, the historic Reform congregation.

I fell in love with Squirrel Hill. I had what I called an urban crush. I loved its homes and restaurants and cafes and bookstores. I had always believed the attack of Oct. 27, 2018, was particularly cruel, because it was an attack on one of the sweetest Jewish communities in America.

In particular: When I would walk along Murray Avenue, the main drag of the Squirrel Hill business district, what would I see?

In the store windows, there were posters that, even two years later, continued to list the names of the dead, with Stars of David.

The owners of those stores were not Jewish. It did not matter. That was what moved me the most. Those store owners were saying: These victims were not from my people, and these victims were not of my faith. But, these victims belong to me. They claim me. They are me.

Do you know who the most famous resident of Squirrel Hill was?

It was the late Fred Rogers.

The show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” featured the Neighborhood of Make Believe. It was a fictional kingdom. It was a place where everyone cared about each other, despite their social status or their power. In every episode, Fred Rogers would make it very clear there was a distinction between the real world and that mythical neighborhood.

Except, Fred Rogers modeled that imaginary neighborhood on Squirrel Hill. Because that is the way people are with each other there. They are present with and for each other.

What we need are ways to build that Neighborhood of Make Believe in our real lives — ways of building social capital and connection.

As David Brooks has written in his book “The Second Mountain“: “A community is healthy when relationships are felt deeply, when there are histories of trust, a shared sense of mutual belonging, norms of mutual commitment, habits of mutual assistance, and real affection from one heart and soul to another.”

That is precisely what so many Americans are seeking in their lives.

And finally, the scroll of theology.

The Tree of Life Congregation is a major Conservative synagogue. Like many Conservative synagogues — like many synagogues, in general — it had lost members.

Tree of Life made its spacious facilities available to other congregations. In that sense, it is a model for how American synagogues should be using their spaces — as places of broad communal welcoming.

One of the congregations that used space in Tree of Life synagogue was Dor Hadash, a vocal and visible supporter of HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

Since HIAS’ inception in 1881, its mission has been to help refugees and immigrants. HIAS helped some of your grandparents and great-grandparents when they resettled in the United States. It proudly proclaims: “Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish. Today, we help refugees because we are Jewish.”

The shooter, Robert Bowers, knew of that support. He could not abide that. In a post on social media, he wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. I’m going in.”

This is what links Bowers to the miscreants of Charlottesville. They chanted: “The Jews will not replace us!” because they believe in the replacement theory, that Jews are conspiring to replace white Americans with denizens of the Third World.

This was Bowers’ hateful and hate-filled distortion of Jewish values of welcoming the stranger. The Torah is the source of that value.

In that sense, therefore, the worshippers at Tree of Life died for one reason, and for one reason only. They died for those values and they died in the presence of that scroll.

They died the death of the righteous. They died as kedoshim, as martyrs.

Thus ends the final scroll, the scroll of theology.

My fondest wish for Robert Bowers? May he live to be 120.

In prison — solitude, if possible.

As for the martyrs of Tree of Life Congregation, may their memories be a blessing, and may a more vigilant, prouder and secure Jewish community be their legacy.