We always search for other Jews when we travel. It gives us a sense of connection when we are in places we haven’t been before. And so, three weeks ago we found ourselves in a shul in Barcelona, and we walked in just as they were awaiting the 10th man for their Maariv minyan. My husband was the lucky guy! We felt immediately at home as the rabbi bemoaned that, in their city of an estimated 10,000 Jews, they didn’t always succeed in making a minyan. We know that story! We could relate and feel like part of the chevra.
Being Jews from Newark, NJ, long before Herzliya became home, we had lived amongst Jews just about always. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Our Newark community, known as Weequahic, had long since made a diaspora to the tony suburbs surrounding the city. The homes are fancier but the flavor is distinctly not Jewish Newark. Sure there are shuls and kosher butchers but not the Newark ambiance where the butchers might be two to a block and the shuls were everywhere known by their street names. So many shuls. So many Jews. Almost all of the homes were kosher and the famed high school was about 95% Jewish.
Our travel group always consists of the three of us, my husband and I, and my sister who is a widow. We go to places near and far and finding the Jews is part of the mission. Hence we’ve been to synagogues in Moscow and Tbilisi and Casablanca and Charleston and Istanbul and Rome and Sydney and too many other places to mention.
But as American Israelis, we love it when we find a city in the United States that has a real Jewish community. This is not so easy. Sure there are large Jewish pockets in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, and Cleveland. But not in so many other places. For example, Detroit, like Newark, has its suburbs, without the inner city Jewish anchor. Where could we find a living, breathing real Jewish community, in an American city?
It was almost an accident that we visited Pittsburgh. In truth none of us were really familiar with the city. We had never been there and really felt no great need to go there. We all shared the same “sense” that Pittsburgh would be a blue collar city filled with huge smokestacks and a uniquely working class sensibility. We knew not of Carnegie Mellon or the University of Pittsburgh or Heinz, or converging rivers and lovely museums. We thought of taverns and row houses. Charmless and uninviting. We did not fear going to Pittsburgh but we didn’t expect to find Paris there either.
Yet, about two years ago, we found ourselves looking for a destination for a two day road trip. We had done all of the obvious spots over and over. Niagara, check! Toronto, check! New England, check! Blue Ridge, check! D. C. check! Philadelphia, home to Penn where so many of our grandchildren studied, double check! The map seemed to call out Pittsburgh, for better or worse.
It was for better. We loved Pittsburgh. The vibe was very lively and friendly with delicious vegetarian food and the world’s best ice cream, a major find for ice cream lovers like us. The city was atmospheric and inviting.
And then we found Squirrel Hill. We had never heard of Squirrel Hill. Chances are its fame would have stayed local if not for the catastrophe. We found it as we did our typical search for shuls. An astounding neighborhood. So much like our own Weequahic. Shul after shul. Jews and more Jews. Jewish shopping and Jewish eating. Right there in the inner city. We went into the Rodef Shalom synagogue and agreed at the time that it was probably the most beautiful shul we had ever been to with its museum and biblical botanical garden. Little did we know that a scant two years after our visit it would become a place for 11 funerals and their subsequent shivas. We could not have imagined it. It exuded peace and prosperity, sprawled out on the slopes of Squirrel Hill near the universities. And then, last week, it became a refuge for mourners, one after the other and the other.
I have no words of wisdom to share about the travesty that all Jews shared at the Etz Chaim synagogue. But I now know that we shall plan a return to Pittsburgh and this time it shall not be as tourists. This time it shall be as pilgrims. Baruch Dayan Ha Emet.