On Saturday morning around 10 a.m., as is typical, I was getting ready to leave the house with my kids to walk to our shul (synagogue) in Squirrel Hill. Even though services begin before 9 a.m., youth activities don’t start until 10 a.m., so my goal is to get to shul then, though we usually run later. On this particular occasion I was aggravated by our lateness because I knew we had to hurry to hear the Torah reading by the boy celebrating his bar mitzvah that day. It was also raining lightly and I was fretting about whether my kids and I had chosen the right shoes and jackets for the 15-minute walk.
A few steps outside our house, it registered with me that I had been hearing sirens nearby. Since we live in a city neighborhood that is crisscrossed by a few major thoroughfares, and since we are relatively close to several hospitals, it’s not unusual to hear sirens. It is unusual, however, to hear multiple sirens, or sirens that go on for a long period of time. As we walked, my kids and I talked with concern about what was going on. To calm them and myself I pointed out that over the summer there had been a kitchen fire in a house on our street, and four fire trucks had come, more than seemed necessary. Maybe lots of sirens meant the response was overly cautious.
We live about a block and a half west of Murray Avenue, one of the main commercial streets in Squirrel Hill, which also offers access to the Interstate system. Our synagogue is on the lower part of Murray, a block away from the Interstate entry ramp. As we approached Murray, the sirens grew louder. Slowly, I began to grasp that something serious was going on. When we were around the corner from my sister’s house, I noted that the sirens were not going toward their block, which was a relief. I thought next about my husband, who was already at our synagogue. I soon determined that the sirens coming from lower Murray were moving up the hill, away from the shul. My kids speculated that maybe something had happened at the JCC, at the corner of Murray and Forbes avenues. By the time we reached Murray, I looked toward the intersection with Forbes, and saw an emergency vehicle cross the intersection and keep going, so we knew the JCC was fine.
Maybe it was a bad car accident, we thought, or maybe there had been an incident at one of the college campuses in that direction. “I hope they are able to help the people who need help,” I told my kids.
As we progressed on our walk down Murray Avenue, one by one, a series of approximately 20 emergency vehicles passed us, including a City of Pittsburgh fire department SUV, several ambulances with the names of suburban emergency services, and quite a few unmarked cars and SUVs with flashing red and blue dashboard lights, some of them likely high ranking city police officers or federal officials. I marveled that all of these people had mobilized so quickly on a Saturday morning. The more vehicles that passed, the more I was certain that something very bad had happened.
I held onto both of my kids’ hands and kept them steadily moving toward our synagogue. When we arrived, the door was locked, which is not typical, but within seconds, a shul member standing guard let us in, recognizing that we belonged there. Inside the front hallway, there were at least a dozen people, including the shul president and a board member who I knew was involved in security upgrades for the building. I asked the president if he knew what had happened. “There has been an incident at Tree of Life,” he told me. My heart sank, fully aware now that there had been a violent attack on the Jewish community. I was advised that the building was on lockdown, and that the children should either be in their group activity rooms or with me at all times.
After stowing our coats on the coat racks, we went upstairs to the group rooms, which were locked. The coordinator of the children’s activities had a key to let the kids into their respective rooms. After leaving them there, I proceeded into the sanctuary, where the bar mitzvah boy, with remarkable composure, was reading from the Torah. On my way to my seat, a friend stopped me to say that she had seen my husband who was concerned that I would not be able to enter the synagogue, but she assured him that the guards would recognize and let me in.
Within moments, the rabbi made an announcement to explain that we were in lockdown because of an active shooter at Tree of Life. As the morning went on, he updated us to say there were reports of multiple fatalities, and that the synagogue would remain in lockdown until the shul’s custodian got an all-clear message from 911. He said he did not think it would be necessary for us to evacuate the building, but if it were, we should evacuate quickly and not pick up our children, since they would be evacuated separately by their group leaders.
The service continued more or less as usual, with the bar mitzvah boy reciting the haftarah. In the rabbi’s sermon, he urged everyone to try to focus on the bar mitzvah celebration since little accurate information about the attack was yet available, and because opportunities in life to celebrate are so fleeting. After the sermon, the bar mitzvah boy led Mussaf, and later gave a d’var Torah. Throughout, there continued to be periodic sirens, which heightened our fears, as did the rabbi’s admonition not to stand too close to the windows, just in case.
As I sat through the service, it was difficult to concentrate on what was going on. I was thankful that we appeared to be safe, but on edge about the possibility of multiple shooters or multiple incidents in our dense neighborhood. I shuddered at the horror of trying to evacuate everyone safely from the sanctuary and classrooms. I began racking my brain about friends who attend the three congregations that meet at Tree of Life and worrying for their safety.
By the time the service concluded, the rabbi announced that the shooter had been apprehended and the lockdown had been lifted. My kids came out of their group rooms to join me in the sanctuary, and before we went downstairs to the kiddush, I quietly told them that a bad man with a gun had gone into a different synagogue and killed some people. I wanted them to hear it from me, and not from someone else. They accepted the news, and were eager to go to the kiddush, but they would have many questions later in the day.
At the kiddush, there were some 300 people, all putting on a brave face and trying to join in the celebration of the bar mitzvah boy and his family, but the looks in our eyes were full of sadness and anxiety.
In the crowd I found my close friend and coworker to discuss whether any of our other coworkers attend services at Tree of Life. She remembered some, I remembered another. We hoped they had not been there, but had no way of knowing. We would find out that night that one of the severely wounded is the husband of a fellow coworker of ours at Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh.
My husband and I had invited another family for Shabbos lunch, so we found them in the crowd and tried to coordinate leaving together. Just after we got on our coats and were preparing to leave, my sister came into the front hall of the shul. She had received several anxious calls from family members and wanted to be able to tell them we were OK. I assured her that we were, and she told me that she, her husband and kids were also fine.
We walked home with our guests and did our best with them to have a normal Shabbos meal that would be fun for our kids. We mostly succeeded. After they left, the rest of the day seemed interminable, with no ability on Shabbos to check the news or to call friends or relatives. I sat in my living room to read the weekly Torah portion, and was interrupted repeatedly by my daughter’s incessant questions about what had happened. Most of them I could only answer with, “I don’t know” or “I have the same questions.”
As the afternoon wore on, our landline began ringing periodically with calls from concerned family members. Not being able to answer, my anxiety level rose even higher, feeling bad that I could not ease their fears, and worried that perhaps other bad things had happened in other places.
I debated knocking on our neighbors’ doors to see if they knew anything I did not, but I was also afraid of what I would find out. Similarly, I debated walking to the home of the coworker who I knew was a regular attendee of services at Tree of Life, but I was terrified of what I would find out, and this was later confirmed when I learned that her husband was in critical condition.
Shortly before 6 p.m., my kids and I ate supper and my husband, who had napped, came downstairs to join us. During the last hour of Shabbos I read to my kids, trying to lift the mood for all of us. Then, immediately after Shabbos, we gave our kids permission to watch a movie on DVD, and we picked up our phones to begin calling and texting relatives and friends who had been trying to reach us for hours.
Being digitally connected again gave us a few answers, but did not ease the dread of wondering who the 11 victims had been. I was saddened, but not surprised to learn that my coworker’s husband was among the injured, as I knew he was a pillar of the Dor Hadash congregation. As a hospice nurse and chaplain, he is among the kindest and most generous people I know, as is his wife.
This morning, I learned the names of the 11 people who were murdered yesterday. I didn’t know any of them personally, but through social media and the news I found that friends knew many of them well. This afternoon, reading a New York Times article about the victims, I realized that I did recognize one of the victims, Cecil Rosenthal. Cecil, who died alongside his brother, was developmentally disabled and was a fixture in our community. Over the years, I’d seen him at numerous events, always with a smile on his face. I learned from the article that he and his brother, who was also developmentally disabled, greeted congregants every week at Tree of Life, and handed them prayer books turned to the correct page.
So, now that the shock and the dread have begun to subside, I am left with devastating sadness. At moments I feel paralyzed, wondering how to focus on anything but the tragedy. At others, I am determined not to let the acts of one hate-filled murderer derail the goodness in my life, my neighborhood and my community.
With this is mind, I took my kids this afternoon, as planned, to a local production of the musical “Annie.” The girl who starred in the show is the daughter of a friend whose family has had a generations long connection to Tree of Life. I messaged my friend last night, to let her know I was thinking of her and would be at the production. She found me at the intermission today and we embraced.
“Annie” is an upbeat, fun musical with undertones of tragedy. Even as a kid, the songs sometimes made me tear up, and in the darkness of the theater today, it was hard to keep from sobbing. Fortunately, there were no young children orphaned in yesterday’s horrific attack, but we were all victimized in a different way. One friend’s husband is fighting for his life, and another friend was traumatized by witnessing the deaths of his congregants. We are all shaken by the knowledge of the proximity of the attack, and our extreme vulnerability. The attacker made no secret of his desire to kill all Jews. He killed 11, but he was coming for all of us.
We humans compartmentalize our knowledge of danger to permit ourselves to function in daily life. So when anti-Semitic attacks happen in other places, it is “over there,” far away, so that we can feel safe. This time, the attack was in my neighborhood. My daughter asked me why the shooter picked that synagogue and not another. While the news suggests he picked it because they hosted a refugee Shabbat, he could have just as easily walked into my shul, or my workplace, or any of the many other Jewish institutions in our neighborhood and opened fire. I can’t separate myself from the reality that he was coming for me too.
The people who died yesterday were the best of us: people who prioritized their faith and their community. Several were health care professionals, and the others were elderly people and the disabled, the most vulnerable among us. They were the shul regulars, who came on time and came every week, so that those of us who come later can count on there being a service. They cannot be replaced, and as time goes on we will feel their loss more and more.
However, as many others have already said about our Squirrel Hill community, this will not destroy us. We will tighten our security and close any loopholes, but we will continue to be the caring and close knit community that is so special. As Jews, we have collectively been through unbearably dark times, and we will come through this as well. I pray that our community and our nation will come out to the other side of this wiser and safer, as well as more thoughtful about the way we conduct public discourse. At my core, I agree with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s determination that we are better than this.
May yesterday be our darkest day, and may we greet tomorrow’s sun, like Annie, with renewed optimism. Today’s staging of the musical was preceded by a moment of silence and a rendition of “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem which means “The Hope.” “Hativka” was composed before the state of Israel was a reality, and kindled hope in some of the darkest times in Jewish history. If hope could prevail then, I pray that it will again.
Follow Susan Jablow