The murder of eleven Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018, was the worst anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history.
And it happened, according to Mark Oppenheimer, in perhaps the best, but certainly the oldest stable Jewish quarter in America.
In October, Mr. Oppenheimer published Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, which tells the story of the attack, its aftermath, and the community that lost 11 members. (Next week, Mr. Oppenheimer will speak about the book in Teaneck’s Rinat Yisrael parish; see box.)
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Mr. Oppenheimer is the host of Tablet’s unorthodox podcast. He heads the Yale Journalism Initiative; He has written four previous books, including Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, and was a religion columnist for the New York Times for six years.
He is also the son of a fifth generation Pittsburgh and a third generation Squirrel Hiller; This neighborhood’s non-Jewish claims to fame are Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Carnegie Mellon University.
“I’ve always had a family in Squirrel Hill,” said Oppenheimer, although his family tended to visit their relatives in Philadelphia when he was growing up. He had been to Squirrel Hill maybe a dozen times, but it was the first time he was reporting for this book that he really got to know the landscape.
The journalist and podcaster Mark Oppenheimer (left) tells the story of the attacks and the community itself in his new book “Squirrel Hill”.
In 2017, demographers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies conducted a population study of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. It found nearly 50,000 Jewish adults and children in nearly 27,000 households in the greater Pittsburgh area, a 17% increase since a 2002 study. A quarter of those households were in Squirrel Hill and another 31% of the area’s Jewish households lived elsewhere within the city limits of Pittsburgh, but mostly in adjacent neighborhoods.
About 40% of the residents of Squirrel Hill are Jewish.
“It is the oldest stable Jewish quarter in the country,” said Oppenheimer. “About a third of them have been Jewish since the First World War – for about 100 years. As far as I can tell, there has not been another community in America in a century with a truly stable substantial Jewish minority. When you think of Brookline, Massachusetts, or Beverly Hills, California, or Skokie, Illinois, they became more Jewish later, in the 1930s or 1940s. The Lower East Side was the largest concentration of Jews in the world in 1920 – back then there were possibly half a million Jews – but today it is only a fraction of what it used to be. “
Squirrel Hill, however, has retained its character for a century.
“It’s not uncommon to meet fourth-generation Squirrel Hill residents,” he said. “People who lived there, whose parents and grandparents also lived there and who are now raising children there themselves. Hard to find that on the Upper West Side or in Teaneck or Lakewood. These places have all changed their character enormously in the last 50 years, let alone in the last hundred. “
So what’s the secret of Squirrel Hill’s stability?
“Nobody has a definitive answer,” said Oppenheimer. “Everyone has an answer, that is, nobody really knows.”
One answer is that Squirrel Hill “was and remains a really nice place to live. It’s been habitable, walkable, stealthy, criminally low – all the good things – for a century. It was never a place that people wanted to leave. “
The neighborhood also has a public high school that has been consistently good over the past century and enough Orthodox population to maintain an infrastructure of kosher markets, Orthodox synagogues, and mikvehs. and these institutions tend to stay in place longer than reform and conservative institutions. “
Also, “There’s the fact that Pittsburgh has a relatively small black population. The kind of racist white escape that occurred in cities like Cleveland and Chicago was less likely in Pittsburgh, if only because it was a whiter city to begin with. ”
Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s, Jewish community leaders opted to rebuild and renovate Squirrel Hill’s old facilities – the JCC and the Retirement Home and Office for Jewish Families – rather than moving them to the suburbs.
Mr. Oppenheimer spent much of the time at Squirrel Hill while reporting on his book. One of the things that surprised him about the response of the wider Jewish community to the attack was that there was “no increase in membership in the Tree of Life after the murder. One might think that after a Shul kills seven members involved “- two other congregations shared the space in the Tree of Life synagogue building, and four of the victims were from these synagogues -” one might think that in a city in which there is so much solidarity with the Jewish community that there has been a movement to replenish the membership of the Tree of Life. “
The Jewish Quarter of Pittsburgh is unique, says Mr. Oppenheimer.
Instead, there has been no evidence of an increase in membership in a ward that had nearly a thousand families a few decades ago and has between 200 and 250 today.
“Some people in the congregation increased their engagement and attendance, but less than you might have expected,” said Oppenheimer. “You’d think the first thing Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders, even those of other schools, would say is, ‘Let’s buy memberships in the Tree of Life.’ ”
He doesn’t know why this happened, but he finds it confusing.
Throughout the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, the attacks were “a startling event that brought Jews into closer contact. It created more opportunities for community building outside of Shul. There were people who became Jewish about gun control, which they saw as Trump’s white nationalist agenda, and people who were committed to Jewish self-defense and took a different perspective on guns. “
What Can Other Churches Learn From Squirrel Hill?
“First and foremost is non-denominational solidarity,” said Oppenheimer. “Jews of all stripes, from secular to charedi, should know each other in every community. The leaders and rabbis should have each other on their cell phones. Even if they disagree on everything, if they are attacked they will have a lot in common. In Pittsburgh they were very good at keeping in touch across these divisions within the Jewish world.
“On Shavuot, the JCC at Squirrel Hill has courses taught by everyone. The Orthodox rabbis teach alongside secular teachers at the JCC. It’s really unusual.
“We should all just know each other better because maybe one day we will need each other.”
WHO: Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and host of Tablet’s unorthodox podcast
What: Talk about his new book, Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood
When: Sunday, December 19, 10 a.m.
Where: Rinat Yisrael Ward, 389 West Englewood Ave. Teaneck
How much: It’s free and open to the public
Covid procedure: Unvaccinated people have to wear masks