It’s a damp Saturday morning in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. I’m in the bare campaign office of a State Senate candidate, training union members and left wing volunteers how to talk with voters about the election, less than nine days away. The first reports appear on social media: there’s an active shooter in the Or L’Simcha – Tree of Life synagogue. Four people have died. This is a few blocks from my home in Squirrel Hill.
Half of the organizers and volunteers in the office are Jews. Phone calls are made. The room fills with conjecture. Is there a second shooter? Should we call back the volunteers who are already walking blocks and knocking doors? Is there an attack at Carnegie Mellon University too? Is Trump to blame? The campaign shuts down.
From the car, I call N., a volunteer still out in the suburbs. He’s confused as to which synagogue has been attacked. I confirm that it’s Or L’Simcha. Yes, that’s where Dor Hadash, the Reconstructionist community, holds services. N. has many friends in Dor Hadash. N. is a communicator for an environmental organization but now he’s lost for words. I hear from J., a former leader in my union, a Jew of the old left, who wanted to reach out. I talk to my father, who not long ago was on the building committee of his own shul, which debated whether to build a secure room for the congregation in case of a mass shooting event. Police cars race past me on their way to the synagogue.
My family is safe in our home. Squirrel Hill residents are told to shelter in place, locking their doors. There’s a helicopter overhead. My wife tries to keep the children busy. She’s explained the situation to our eldest daughter but is waiting to tell the two little children. Friends from Europe and Australia write messages of solidarity. A British sociologist has already found the hateful social media trail of the suspected gunman. Eight people are dead. I turn off the computer and lie down with our youngest daughter to rest. When I wake up, the death toll has risen to eleven.
High school students have called for a vigil. We bundle the children into their coats and make our way to the heart of Squirrel Hill, where thousands have gathered quietly in the streets. A woman leads a prayer of mourning and makes Havdalah. A young student leader tells us that she’s a different Jew today than she was yesterday. Shabbat is ending, but the return to the regular days of the week will not be normal in Squirrel Hill. We must not forget, we must keep this moment with us. There’s a moment of silence. A spontaneous chant of “Vote! Vote! Vote!” rises through the crowd.
I’m separated from my family. A neighbor embraces me. I see a tall man in the crowd. It’s the right wing politician I was campaigning against a few hours before. He’s alone, without his political staff or media. I introduce myself, tell him about the moment we learned about the killing in the campaign office of his rival, and thank him for coming to Squirrel Hill. When my wife finds me again, I see that a trauma therapy worker has pressed a stuffed bunny into the hands of my littlest girl.
Almost home, we meet M., the Chabad rabbi who lives across the street. He and his family were locked down in the Lubavitcher shul for most of the day. He’s relieved that it’s “someone who hates” who made the attack, “not someone shouting Allahu Akbar, which would make relations between people so bad in Pittsburgh.” M. is part of the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha, so he expects to be called to Or L’Simcha to look after the bodies of the dead. In some places, he says, an attack like this happens and life returns to normal within a day.
Donald Trump and Naftali Bennett are on their way to Pittsburgh. I’m not ready for the political takes yet. My social media post is just a picture of a wall, a bit of graffiti. Am Yisroel Chai. The Jewish people live, and so does Squirrel Hill.