Pittsburgh never felt so close

During the last nine years of my life in Israel, I have grown used to the quizzical reaction I often receive from people when I tell them that I’m from Pittsburgh. At the most, I can expect a brief flicker of recognition and an anecdote about a mother’s cousin who once spent a night there. But more often than not, broader geographical context is required.

Now that the name of my hometown is synonymous with the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, that reality is irrevocably changed.

On Saturday night, I watched with my family in disbelief as images of the streets in which I played as a child were beamed to our Jerusalem living room; as friends and colleagues of my parents recounted their experiences to reporters; as the community in which I grew up mourned the loss of 11 of its members.

It may be naïve to be shocked by a mass shooting event motivated by hate in the United States of 2018. But anyone even passingly familiar with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, and with Squirrel Hill, its epicenter, will identify with the feeling of disbelief that something like this could happen there. The close-knit nature of the community, strong Jewish institutional presence, and excellent relations with our neighbors created a sense of security that accompanied my peers and myself throughout our adolescent years. Anti-Semitism existed, but it happened in other places, to other people. Not in Pittsburgh, and certainly not in one of its synagogues.

That innocence was shattered this past weekend, as the Jewish community of Pittsburgh joined those of Mumbai, Nice, Jerusalem, and numerous others in its members being attacked simply because they were Jews. Long used to fielding worried phone calls during tumultuous times in Israel, I suddenly found the tables bizarrely turned. The warnings of people older and wiser than me that “it” could happen anytime and anywhere, warnings which I spent most of my youth comfortably ignoring, suddenly took on a new meaning.

This new reality which confronts Pittsburgh, and by extension, American Jewry is unfamiliar and scary. But I am convinced that it will not change the essence of what has always made Pittsburgh’s Jewish community such a wonderful place to live in – the warmness and openness of the people, the unity and cooperation between members of every group on the spectrum of Jewish practice, and the help that is always extended to others in times of need. These are qualities that I have always proudly listed when describing to others the place in which I grew up; these are attributes that are stronger than an assassin’s bullet.

It has been difficult to watch the events in Pittsburgh from a distance. It won’t get any easier in the coming days or weeks. But the resilience and unity displayed by the people of this city have reminded me what a privilege it is to call it my home. The physical distance may be large, but in many ways I have never felt closer.

About the Author
David Schiff is a student at Hebrew University who made Aliyah from Pittsburgh. His family was and continues to be active members of the Jewish community in Squirrel Hill.
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