Five years after Tree of Life attack, Pittsburgh Jewish community commemorates massacre — and grieves with Israel
This anniversary, already a difficult day for a grieving community, comes less than three weeks after Hamas’ deadly terrorist attacks in Israel that have deeply affected Pittsburgh’s Jewish community
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Five years ago, an armed white nationalist walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue that was just starting its Saturday morning Shabbat service and began shooting. Eleven people died in the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the most deadly antisemitic act in American history. Today, members of the Jewish community in the tight-knit Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill will gather to commemorate that horrible day and the lives lost.
This anniversary, already a difficult day for a grieving community, comes less than three weeks after Hamas’ deadly terrorist attacks in Israel that have deeply affected Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
“There’s deep sadness about what we saw in Israel, and I think deep sadness at what is happening in response,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a community-building organization created after the shooting. “I think the community unfortunately knows what it’s like to come together in moments of horror and sadness, and I think it’s done that. I wish we didn’t have to again. I wish we didn’t have to be practiced at it.”
Squirrel Hill this week faced troubling antisemitic incidents related to the situation in Israel. At least three families woke up on Thursday to find their “I Stand With Israel” yard signs vandalized. One had the word “NO” scrawled over the text in bright red, while on the others the word “Israel” had been crossed out and covered with the word “Gaza.” Someone spray painted “Free Palestine” on a wall outside a local public school with a large Jewish population.
“It’s absolutely horrible, when this community is trying to heal and trying to come together to commemorate the five-year anniversary of this horrific shooting,” said Brad Orsini, the former director of community security at Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He helped the Pittsburgh Jewish community develop a strong security infrastructure after the attack. Local and federal law enforcement agencies are on high alert in Squirrel Hill this weekend.
Earlier this week, community service events connected to the anniversary were well-attended. A virtual Torah study will have instructors from as far away as Israel. And an outdoor commemoration event at a park today is expected to draw a large crowd.
“Our whole goal,” said Orsini, now a senior national security advisor at Secure Community Network, “is to let people be Jewish, to make them feel comfortable to go to shul, make them feel comfortable to send their kids to school, make them not even ask the question, ‘Should we raise the Israeli flag at our school, at our shul?’”
In August, the gunman was sentenced to death after a lengthy trial. Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community say the culmination of the trial has brought a sense of closure.
“It enabled us to close that chapter and focus on a new chapter,” said Shawn Brokos, who now oversees Jewish community security at the Pittsburgh federation. “I think that’s what I’d like to celebrate [today] instead of the current threat tempo. I would hate to see that overshadow the strength and resiliency of this community.”