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Squirrel Hill 

Risa Margulies

I spent last Shabbat in Pittsburgh.  My husband and daughter and I traveled there for the weekend to celebrate the bar mitzvah of the son of one of my oldest friends. I was in shul on Shabbat morning of October 27, 2018—earlier than I normally would be because I wanted to make sure to get there for Torah reading to listen to the Bar Mitzvah boy.  As I sat with my daughter, she remarked to me, “This shul is weird. You can hear the outside so much.” I asked her what she meant and she said, “Listen, you can hear all the sirens.” I hadn’t even noticed, but she was right, you could clearly hear sirens outside. After another Aliyah or two, expertly read by the bar mitzvah boy, the Rabbi got up on the bima.  I thought he was just stepping up to ask for quiet. He did ask for quiet, and then he made an announcement, “I know you are hearing sirens outside. Preliminary reports tell us they are in response to a shooting at Tree of Life.”

The rabbi went on to tell us that our shul building was going into lockdown mode.  The children were in their youth groups and he gave parents the option to go get them or leave them there, but to keep them in one place or the other.  He also cautioned us not to speculate until we knew the whole story and encouraged us to go on with the bar mitzvah as planned, because we need to seize upon the moments in which we can celebrate. Unbelievably composed, the Bar Mitzvah boy went on to finish Torah reading, daven Mussaf and deliver his D’var Torah.  The rabbi addressed us a few more times to give us updates, but not much was known.

We had kiddush and lunch, and not knowing the whole story, we went back to my parent’s house to finish the rest of the day.  Even before Shabbat was over in Pittsburgh, our phones started ringing and buzzing with text messages. Family, friends and coworkers were calling to find out if we were OK.  It was only after we made havdalah that we found out the extent and the true horrific nature of the tragedy that had taken place just minutes from where we were.

For two days afterwards, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop reading and watching the news and I couldn’t stop scrolling through Facebook incessantly, clicking on every link to every news story, opinion piece and blog post. I couldn’t stop clicking the love button on the notice of every Facebook friend who updated their profile picture to the “Stronger than Hate” modified Steelers logo.  

From New York Times columnists with Pittsburgh connections who published opinion pieces, to old friends sharing heartfelt Facebook posts, most centered around the same theme - Pittsburgh is a unique city of diversity, caring and strength, and Squirrel Hill its Jewish epicenter, where all who grew up there led an idyllic childhood.

And I asked myself - Is it really true? Is Squirrel Hill really that unique and special? I don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s ok that we idealize it at a time like this.

Here’s what I do know.

I grew up in Pittsburgh.  I’ve always been proud of that.  There’s a nice contingent of people from Pittsburgh who live in Kemp Mill.  Some of them are also members of KMS. I know for me, and I suspect for them too, a lot of what we love about our hometown we’ve found in our chosen community.  

I also know that there was no time in my Squirrel Hill childhood when I felt unsafe walking to shul or inside shul. The large Orthodox shul that I attended, Poale Zedeck, sits proudly on the corner of Shady and Phillips Avenue in the heart of Squirrel Hill. I went to Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh through eighth grade, and while it was an Orthodox Jewish day school to be sure, many of my classmates’ families were members of Conservative shuls like Beth Shalom and Tree of Life.  In fact, two of my friends’ fathers were the Rabbis of those congregations. I went to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at both of those shuls as well as some others, and we didn’t so much as bat an eyelash about our ideological differences.

When I began attending the public Taylor Allderdice High School in 9th grade, I was never, ever afraid to admit that I was an observant Jew. I made many Jewish and non-Jewish friends, and all respected my beliefs and my practices.

I was very  involved in the Central East region of NCSY, where our regional song ended in the phrase, “Proud that we are Jews!” We shouted it at the top of our lungs at every shabbaton, and what’s more - we internalized it. I internalized it so much that I remain dedicated to spending thousands of dollars each year educating my children at Berman Hebrew Academy, sending them to Camp Stone, making sure they are active in youth programs at KMS, and exploring every avenue there is to make sure they have positive Jewish experiences inside and outside  my home.

Is Squirrel Hill as special as they say? I’ll tell you that every time I go back to Pittsburgh I get a rush just coming off the highway and crossing the threshold into Squirrel Hill. I look forward to taking walks up and down Murray Avenue and Forbes Street, the main business district of the neighborhood – Jewish and otherwise. (It’s like a larger Kemp Mill Shopping Center with less parking space.) My kids marvel at the amount of people I run in to that I know, everywhere we go in the neighborhood. Kemp Mill is wonderful, and I’m proud to call it home and raise my children here, but Pittsburgh, and Squirrel Hill especially, are home to me, plain and simple.

I couldn’t stop taking everything in because I simply couldn’t believe what happened on Saturday morning and I’m slowly processing it with every subsequent news story and social media post I read. I am shattered by this incomprehensible act of anti-semitism. I am grieving for the victims.  I want to know more about each one and honor their memories. Every time I see one of their relatives on TV talking with an instantly recognizable Pittsburgh accent, I cry because I feel connected to them as a fellow Jew and a fellow Pittsburgher.

I know that some measure of healing will come, and I know that I need to put away my phone so that I can concentrate on other things. I know that Pittsburgh will emerge stronger and more unified than ever because, well, it’s Pittsburgh.

I know that I will continue to educate my children and instill them with Jewish pride. I have to. It’s just how I grew up.


Tue, September 22 2020 4 Tishrei 5781