From Sorrow to Solace in Squirrel Hill

By: Hadassah Penn  |  November 14, 2018

By Hadassah Penn, Opinions Editor

It rained in Pittsburgh, last Sunday. The air was cold, colder than in New York, and it shocked me after the six-hour drive. When we arrived at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, it was already full of people. There was no room to sit inside, or even to stand in the aisle, so we stood outside with hundreds of others. It was freezing, and I noticed people without umbrellas – without coats, even – but nobody complained or turned to leave. This unwavering support, I learned, is typical of the Pittsburgh community, and especially of Squirrel Hill.

Last Shabbat, a gunman massacred eleven men and women inside Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue. The next day, thousands of people gathered for a vigil to grieve, to show support, and to comfort one another. Thanks to Yeshiva University, I was able to attend this ceremony, along with several of my peers. This was my first time in Pittsburgh. It’s a lovely place: cozy and green and inviting.

Pittsburgh is also diverse. Much of America is these days, but what makes Pittsburgh special is the respect and harmony that exists between the different communities. Standing outside Memorial Hall in a crowd of thousands, the community bond was so warm and so tangible that I barely noticed the rain and chill. Fittingly, the ceremony was interfaith, just like those in attendance. Jewish leaders spoke; representatives from Pittsburgh’s Christian and Muslim communities condemned the attack and pledged their support as well. Reverend Liddy Barlow promised, “We will cry with you. We will resist anti-Semitism and all hatred with you…We will do that because you are our neighbors, but more because you are our friends and, still more, because you are our family. We love you, and we are so sorry.” Wasi Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh offered practical support as well: “If you need anything at all…if you just need somebody to come to the grocery store [with you] because you don’t feel safe in this city, we’ll be there, and I’m sure everybody in the room would say the same thing. We’re here for the community.” As one people, we applauded and mourned and embraced, we clapped and cried and huddled beneath shared umbrellas.

To love one’s neighbor as his own self is an underlying principle of our Jewish faith, and we all strive to meet this condition as best we can. Until Sunday, however, I had never seen it fulfilled so earnestly, on such a large scale. One can search for this level of community his whole life and never find it. Now that I’ve found it, I’ll never forget it.