Two Years Later, Reflecting On The Tree Of Life Shooting

By: Susan Jacobs Jablow  |  October 29, 2020

By Susan Jacobs Jablow, 1998-1999 Editor in Chief of the YU Observer

Susan Jacobs Jablow is a 1999 SCW graduate and a former editor-in-chief of the YU Observer.

On the morning of October 27, 2018, I was doing what I typically do on Shabbos (Sabbath) morning — walking to shul (synagogue) with my kids. When we stepped outside our front door in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, it felt like a regular fall Shabbos. It was cool and raining lightly. We were running late, and I was anxious to get moving.

The walk to shul takes about 15 minutes. That morning it felt much longer. Almost immediately as we walked, we heard sirens. My kids, who were then nine and six, wondered what was going on. Since we live in an urban neighborhood, it is not uncommon to hear sirens, so at first I dismissed them. Very quickly though, it became clear that something was terribly wrong. By the time we reached Murray Avenue, the main artery of our neighborhood, we saw fire department vehicles, ambulances, and unmarked police cars streaming past us, all with sirens blaring.

Squirrel Hill is the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, home to synagogues from across the Jewish spectrum. The shul we belong to, Shaare Torah Congregation, is just one mile from Tree of Life synagogue, the building that was plunged into the international spotlight — and history — that morning, as it became the site of the United States’ deadliest antisemitic attack.

We felt alarmed and scared, but didn’t know what had happened until we arrived at Shaare Torah, and were informed that an “incident” had occurred at Tree of Life. By the time services ended, we knew that 11 innocent people had been murdered.

Looking back, it feels surreal that we lived through this, but as I write this around the two-year anniversary, the shock, fear, and disbelief I felt come back to me. Viscerally, I remember the horror of that day, and how it changed us.

Before then, our community had some security measures in place but many shuls still had unlocked doors and no guards. Now, every shul has a visible security presence, as the vague possibility of an attack morphed into the stark recognition of our vulnerability, and the reality that antisemitism is on the rise. In this sense, Pittsburgh is no different than any other Jewish community in the United States. But at this time of year, at least, the shooting at Tree of Life is not merely a painful memory or a wake-up call, but a reality we revisit with a sadness that is palpable. It happened here. It hurts us still.

In early 2020, just before Purim (a Jewish holiday) and the eerie shutdowns of the pandemic, I wrote an essay about my experience on October 27, 2018, which was included in the recently published anthology “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy.” It is a great honor to be included in this book, along with newspaper journalists who covered the shooting, as well as academics, historians, and writers in our community. Together, our reflections are a multi-faceted record of that horrible day and its aftermath.

When I sat down to write my essay, I thought about how I could expand upon a personal blog post I wrote the day after the shooting. I realized I wanted to talk about how observing Shabbos had been both a challenge and a comfort that day.

It was a challenge to not be able to turn on our phones to monitor the unfolding news story. There we were in the middle of a story that was being followed around the world, but without access to information for ourselves. That Shabbos felt incredibly long and isolating, as we wondered and worried what other developments were occurring. We knew that family members who are not observant, or who live in areas where Shabbos ends earlier, would worry about us. It was awful not to be able to speak to them.

However, Shabbos that day was also a comfort, as it shielded our children from frightening details and enabled us to speak to them at length about our questions and fears. The rhythms of Shabbos sheltered and guided us that day. In retrospect, I realized that observing Shabbos was also an act of defiance in the face of the day’s events. An antisemite set out to kill us and desecrate our way of life, but we persevered in honoring and observing Shabbos. We survived. We will go on.

Two years later, we are still here, still observing Shabbos every week as our community continues to heal.