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‘Pittsburgh’ is not the name of a terror attack

A year after the attack at the Tree of Life building, we mustn't let ourselves be defined by a single, horrific anti-Semitic act
Sanctuary at Tree Of Life - Or L'Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy)
Sanctuary at Tree Of Life - Or L'Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy)

As we approach one year since the worst anti-Semitic incident in American history, I wanted to thank everyone for your outpouring of support for the Pittsburgh Jewish community and to suggest a way you can continue to help. Over the last year, you and the members of your communities have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with all of us in the 412 (our area code). We felt the love you showered upon us in the weeks and months after the attack. We will never forget your generosity, your caring and your support.

I receive Google alerts every day that tell me when articles appear in the media using my search words: “Jewish” and “Pittsburgh.” Since last October 27, I receive multiple alerts per day, and I read how the media, elected officials and the general public portray and reference the attack.

I see many references in these articles to the “anniversary” of “Pittsburgh.” I never refer to the one-year marker as an “anniversary” to avoid the idea that this commemoration of the 11 people killed is happy or positive in any way. More importantly, I never refer to this attack as “Pittsburgh” or “Tree of Life,” and I hope everyone will stop doing so.

This attack is not representative of Pittsburgh. It is an anomaly. Pittsburgh, a city I have called home for 21 years, means more than one act of hate. Pittsburgh is a city rich with history. It is the city that literally built the world through its steel production. For a period of time, Pittsburgh was the third-largest home to Fortune 500 companies behind New York and Chicago. Pittsburgh boasts diverse neighborhoods with many faiths and ethnicities. Today, the city is growing and becoming younger each year. Strong education and medical organizations—the so-called “eds” and “meds”—as well as our strong technology sector support this growth. I see the physical manifestation of innovation on our streets, as Uber and Argo AI both have fleets of self-driving cars here.

Although our Pittsburgh Jewish community has spread throughout greater Pittsburgh region, the Squirrel Hill neighborhood continues to serve as the heart of Jewish Pittsburgh as it has for almost a century. We live and work together and celebrate our diversity of Jewish experiences—rich and poor, Orthodox, Reform, Chabad, Conservative, Reconstructionist, “just Jewish” and non-denominational. According to our most recent Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Jewish Federation, we have grown to nearly 50,000 people, with major expansion in our millennial age group.

If you refer to the shooting as “Pittsburgh,” you denigrate what this city is all about. You take a single, horrific anti-Semitic action and define this region and our Jewish community by that incident.

If you refer to the attack as “Tree of Life,” you both minimize the rich history of this congregation that dates back to 1864 and unnecessarily downplay the experience of the other two congregations that shared the Tree of Life building. New Light Congregation, a Conservative congregation, had sold their building and was renting space inside the Tree of Life building at the time of the attack. Congregation Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation, was also renting space from the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation last year. Each of these three congregations lost members on October 27. While Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation was and is the owner of the property, all three congregations shared in the trauma.

So, what is the right way to refer to what happened? I suggest that everyone refer to this attack as “the attack at the Tree of Life building.” An alternative would be to say “the attack in Pittsburgh” or “the October 27th shooting.” I hope no one will call a horrifying, anti-Semitic attack “Pittsburgh” or “Tree of Life” alone. Words matter. They truly matter to all of us in Pittsburgh.

About the Author
Jeffrey Finkelstein is the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
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