To be an expat in Israel means feeling the occasional longing for America, and lately, especially for the city where I grew up, Pittsburgh. These past two weeks I am feeling a level of homesickness that I have never felt in all my years of living here in Israel.
I want to march around my Kiryat Tivon community with my Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates hats and my Penguins jersey. I feel like showing everyone I know the recent documentary on the life of Fred Rogers, ‘Mister Rogers’ the famous Pittsburgher who taught so many of us what it means to be a ‘good neighbor’. I am craving more of my Pittsburgh roots, and seeing Heinz ketchup in so many restaurants in Israel is just not enough.
We are all reeling from the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, and of course our hearts are broken for the families of the victims. For those of us who grew up in Squirrel Hill, we are trying to cope with the shock of watching our multi-ethnic and culturally diverse neighborhood and local synagogue become the setting for the most violent act of anti- Semitism in the history of the US.
As I grieve from afar, I have found solace and support in the well-deserved outpouring of love for my home community. I was comforted by pictures of the interfaith vigil, organized by Squirrel Hill high school students within hours of the tragedy that was attended by thousands. I was uplifted by the news of Wasi Mohammed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, offering protection to the Jewish community and raising several hundred thousand dollars for the victims. Indeed, Mr. Mohammed spoke movingly of his close friendships with many Pittsburgh Jewish leaders and how the local Jewish community reached out to Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. For those of us who know the community and its leadership, this doesn’t come as a surprise — it is simply a reflection of core values that we were raised with growing up in Squirrel Hill. It signals the expansive and welcoming way that the Pittsburgh Jewish community has always defined the meaning of the word ‘community.’
Time and time again, we saw this community spirit — from the many vigils organized by churches, local universities and communal institutions to the Penguin’s hockey team’s tribute to the victims and fundraiser for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh. Leaders of all faiths and backgrounds have come together to condemn the attack and have organized rallies of unity and peace. The slogans- “We’re stronger than hate” — are displayed in storefronts around the city. My mom, Pittsburgh historian Prof. Barbara Burstin, and I have had several conversations about the many examples of how this sense of cohesion is so richly on display these past two weeks. “Pittsburgh is the city of bridges both literally and figuratively. It is not by chance that the 1970’s anthem ‘We are Family’ was the Pittsburgh theme song for so many years.”
And in Israel? The outpouring of solidarity and sympathy has been similarly heartening. Videos and pictures popped up from Israelis all over the country showing their support. A friend this week sent me of a video of a vigil organized on short notice in Raanana held for the Pittsburgh victims, with over 1,000 people in attendance. And of course, there was a vigil held in Karmiel/Misgav region – the partnership region of Pittsburgh for over twenty years. This partnership, now known as the Partnership2Gether, is part of a larger program of pairing Israeli towns and cities with American cities. It is a relationship that is emblematic of the way that the Pittsburgh Jewish community builds connections and has affected the lives of so many of both communities – mine included. Back in 1995 it was on the plane to a summer internship in Karmiel when I met my future mother-in-law.
I have been a long-time member of the ‘Pittsburgh Diaspora,’ as termed by a family friend in a televised interview days after the tragedy. He described the sense of civic pride and responsibility that each of us feel as members of the Pittsburgh community, and our sense of purpose in taking our hometown values with us wherever we go. These values have been on display in so many communities that are like Squirrel Hill — the #ShowUpForShabbat, where thousands of Jews and non-Jews attended Shabbat services around the country and world, was one of the many examples.
Those of us living in the tough neighborhood of the Middle East – very far away from Mister Roger’s neighborhood — have been greatly inspired. We were strengthened by a sense of hope in seeing such generosity and the way that the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the wider community have responded to the tragedy. As we commit ourselves to always remember and honor the lives lost, we can all pay attention to building the bridges that are an embodiment of Pittsburgh’s spirit.