A Day in Squirrel Hill

By CEO Amy Lavin

Nothing prepares you for a memorial like the one outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, PA. Eleven Mogen Davids piled waist-high with flowers, notes and marked with names…names of the victims. We’ve read them, displayed them and seen them in pictures online and on TV. Standing there in the shadow of a building reading “Tree of Life” is surreal. 

Then we entered the synagogue; walking into one of the chapels where the shootings actually occurred. Benches have been removed, carpet cut away and caution tape remains. The image takes your mind to awful places. And then there are the bullet holes in the podium, the stairs to the ark and the ark itself.

This past Tuesday I spent the day with JCC colleagues and Jewish Federation professionals from around the US, internalizing the effects of the Tree of Life massacre on October 27, 2018. I wanted to share my experience, mostly to ‘bring it home’ to those of us so far away.

As I drove into Squirrel Hill, a huge banner appeared at a major intersection. We all know the symbol now, and it was powerful to see it and others like it displayed city-wide. I made my way to the JCC in Squirrel Hill, which is without question, a central gathering spot of the Jewish and broader community alike. I was reticent to enter a room full of people mourning a tragedy, yet committed to do our best to avoid anything like it in the future…or at least, be better prepared to respond.

With detailed briefings from the FBI and JCC staff, community lay-leaders and more, we got a quick, grim picture of the emergency, intensity and scale of an event like this. We talked about what it meant to jump into action to protect, respond, care for, and guide individuals and a community through the event and immediate aftermath. The presentations in the JCC’s multi-purpose room were the easy part. Then we boarded the buses.

In a 15-minute bus tour, we gained a quick understanding of the density, vibrancy, and pride in Jewish life in Squirrel Hill. Jewish influence is evident in the number of temples/synagogues, restaurants, people walking around in kippot and a large, busy JCC. I’m not sure we have anything quick like it here in the Puget Sound.

The buses circled the tight-knit neighborhood only to drop us at the Tree of Life. With overwhelming emotion, we heard from the Community Director of Security, a rabbi, who has served in ZAKA (Israeli volunteer emergency response teams), and Rabbi Myers, whose heroic acts saved lives and activated law enforcement. We heard briefly of the horrors Rabbi Myers witnessed and his conviction to carry the congregation and community forward…though for Squirrel Hill, no one yet knows just how. A brief service and shared Mourner’s Kaddish was healing and gut wrenching at the same time.

Buses returned us to the JCC, where we heard from leaders of the Jewish Community Center Association, Jewish Federations of North America, and Jewish Family Service, and then we toured the local JCC to understand how a ‘host site’ absorbs an operation of this magnitude. Every step along the way, we met staff members and community lay leaders who individually and collectively managed through October 27 and continue to do so today. A drop-in counseling center remains.

Throughout the day, a couple strong themes emerged. First, relationships are vital to preparation and response. Relationships make swift, effective action possible. Second, training and preparation assist in maintaining clarity of mind and judgement when we are called to action under unimaginable conditions. Third, the complexity of coping with personal trauma and professional responsibility is trying. Staff members worked tirelessly to maintain community services as they personally coped with losing loved ones and friends, and facing hatred in the most despicable form. Finally, the resolve of the Pittsburgh team and community is noteworthy.

Each person who spoke with us lived in Squirrel Hill. Staff and lay-leaders shared the town’s history, relayed the facts, and shared their personal story of what happened to them on October 27. I couldn’t help but imagine these people as any one of us, moving through our usual Saturday routines, until something shakes us into a new reality. While the fragility of life became a pervasive theme, so did resilience and the power of a community to assemble and start the healing process.

The healing is powered by each individual and by overwhelming community support from near and far. Flowers and notes at the Tree of Life reflected the outpouring of love, as did the posters and signs lining the auditorium where we met. I was proud to add our SJCC trees to the collection. 

This was my first trip to Pittsburgh, and while it was under horrific circumstances, I felt a sense of unity and pride that clearly demonstrates it is a town made of steel.