A week ago, most of us had never heard of the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. Now we’ll never forget it. And as Shabbat approaches, it’s hard to know what to feel.
Shabbat always brings peace and comfort. But last week, when gunfire and violence tore apart one congregation’s morning service, it shattered that comfort and peace for all of us. This week, can Shabbat bring us some consolation? Let’s hope.
I just returned from Pittsburgh, where I traveled to show solidarity with the community and to pay tribute to those who lost their lives. I was joined by about a dozen ADL leaders and our regional director, Jeremy Pappas, who has been on the ground there, providing support to the community since we first learned of the tragedy last weekend.
We wanted to bear witness to this hateful act because it goes to the heart of our mission. It was a reminder, and a warning, of what can happen when anti-Semitism infects someone’s entire belief system and where that hatred can inexorably lead.
The first thing you notice about Squirrel Hill is that it’s small. Really small.
At one point during my visit to Pittsburgh, someone said to me that in the rest of the country, there are six degrees of separation between people. In Squirrel Hill, it’s just one degree. Perhaps that’s why the horror of this past weekend hit home so hard. It upset the laws of gravity, not just for Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh, but for the American Jewish community.
As I stood outside Tree of Life with Police Chief Scott Schubert, he related to me the disbelief in the station when they received the first calls on Saturday morning about a shooting inside the synagogue. We talked about the amazing bravery of the officers who responded almost instantly to the calls and somehow managed to breach the synagogue even while taking fire at close range from the assailant. When we asked him what he saw when he entered the building after the suspect had been apprehended, Chief Schubert trembled. He looked at the ground, grimaced, and shook his head. He would not share details of the horror he saw.
From the instant we first learned of the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, ADL sprung into action: providing critical information to law enforcement, briefing law enforcement on the extremist threat, researching the alleged perpetrator’s social media profile and providing critical support to the Jewish community in Squirrel Hill. Each of us, in the midst of our own immeasurable sadness, channeled our grief into our work.
As we were providing support to Pittsburgh, we ourselves felt an outpouring of love and support from every corner — from the Muslim community to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The best of humanity from all walks of the civil rights space came to us to ask, how can we help? I hope that you’ve felt the same warm embrace and that it has helped you get through this very difficult week.
The people of Pittsburgh possess a remarkable degree of strength. In the face of such unspeakable, soul-crushing depravity, you could feel their resilience. I felt this in my bones when I sat with Mayor Peduto in his wood-paneled office under a portrait of William Pitt. He openly shared both his palpable grief, and his deep sense of communion with his Jewish constituents and his resolve to rebuild their sense of security. In doing so, the Mayor quietly conveyed enormous strength.
I could sense the possible. Even as we lamented the terrible losses, the stories of their lives were inspiring. I saw an imam embrace Jewish mourners in the synagogue after one of the services. I saw an African-American couple lay flowers at the Tree of Life memorial, people who may have been unfamiliar with Jewish ritual and yet clearly wanted to stand with their neighbors. I watched as one woman crossed her chest in her own personal gesture of religious respect for her fellow citizens of another faith. All in all, I got the sense that this community will endure and thrive, like roots shooting up from the ashes of this tragedy that will grow tall and strong.
And finally, I had a powerful sense of Jewish unity. Maybe it was the carful of Yeshiva University students at the shiva call who drove through the night from New York City to be present — and planned to turn right around and drive home. Maybe it was the rabbi and his wife who flew in from Boston to be there. Maybe it was the Federation executive from Washington, DC who came to town without any cameras, without any press, simply to mourn.
That’s why, in the midst of profound sadness, I also feel hope. In the aftermath of Tree of Life, we will work with our allies in the Jewish community and our civil rights partners to drive change. We will use this moment to galvanize support.
Driving back to the Pittsburgh airport in the early morning darkness, I feel more energized than overwhelmed. I am reminded in my soul that we at ADL are united with the people of Pittsburgh. We will not give an inch in the struggle against anti-Semitism in all forms. We will fight to preserve and protect the freedoms that we enjoy. We will push back on those who advocate intolerance against our community or any other minority group. We will double down to combat those who seek to divide our people no matter where they come from or how they politically affiliate. We will stand together to ensure that we can create the conditions and fortify the foundations of our democracy so that we can prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
We often hear the phrase “never again.” Well, never is now.
I hope Shabbat will bring us all a measure of comfort.
With gratitude and hope,
CEO and National Director