The murder of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018, was the worst anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history.
And it happened, according to Mark Oppenheimer, in perhaps the best, but certainly the longest-standing stable Jewish neighborhood in America.
In October, Mr. Oppenheimer published “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” which tells the story of the attack, its aftermath, and the community which lost 11 members. (Next week, Mr. Oppenheimer will talk about the book at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael; see box.)
Mr. Oppenheimer is the host of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast. He directs the Yale Journalism Initiative; he has written four previous books, including “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture” and was the New York Times’ religion columnist for the six years.
He also is the son of a fifth-generation Pittsburgher and third-generation Squirrel Hill-er; that neighborhood’s non-Jewish claims to fame are Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Carnegie Mellon University.
“I’ve always had family in Squirrel Hill,” Mr. Oppenheimer said, though when he growing up his family was more likely to visit their relatives in Philadelphia. He had been to Squirrel Hill perhaps a dozen times but in reporting for this book he was “really getting to know this landscape for the first time.”
In 2017, demographers at the Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies conducted a population study of the Pittsburgh Jewish community. It found nearly 50,000 Jewish adults and children in nearly 27,000 households in the greater Pittsburgh region, an increase of 17% since a 2002 study. A quarter of those households were in Squirrel Hill, with a further 31% of the region’s Jewish households living elsewhere within the Pittsburgh city limits, but predominately in adjacent neighborhoods.
About 40% of the people who live in Squirrel Hill are Jewish.
“It’s the oldest stable Jewish neighborhood in the country,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “It’s been about one third Jewish since World War I — for about 100 years. As far as I can tell, there is no other community in America with a really stable substantial Jewish minority for a century. If you think about Brookline, Massachusetts, or Beverly Hills, California, or Skokie, Illinois, they tended to become Jewish later, in the ’30s or ’40s. The Lower East Side was the largest concentration of Jews in the world in 1920 — it had possibly half a million Jews then — but now it’s only a fraction of what it once was.”
Squirrel Hill, however, has kept its character for a century.
“It’s not unusual to meet fourth generation Squirrel Hill residents,” he said. “People who lived there whose parents and grandparents also lived there, and who are now themselves raising children there. It would be hard to find that on the Upper West Side or in Teaneck or Lakewood. Those places have all changed their character tremendously in the last 50 years, let alone the last hundred.”
So what is the secret of Squirrel Hill’s stability?
One answer is that Squirrel Hill was, and remains, “a really nice place to live. It has stayed livable, walkable, heimish, low-crime — all the good things — for a century. It’s never been a place people wanted to leave.”
The neighborhood also has, on the one hand, a public high school that has been consistently good over the last century, and on the other hand, enough of an Orthodox population to maintain an infrastructure of kosher markets, Orthodox synagogues, and mikvehs, “and those institutions tend to stay put more than Reform and Conservative institutions do.”
Additionally, “there’s the fact that Pittsburgh has a relatively small Black population. The kind of racist white flight that occurred in cities like Cleveland and Chicago was less likely to occur in Pittsburgh, if only because it was a whiter city to begin with.”
And finally, in the 1980s and 1990s Jewish communal leaders chose to rebuild and renovate Squirrel Hill’s old institutions — the JCC and the home for the aged and the Jewish family services agency — rather than relocate them to the suburbs.
Mr. Oppenheimer spent a lot of time in Squirrel Hill while reporting his book. One of the things that surprised him about the broader Jewish community’s response to the attack was that following the murder, “there wasn’t an uptick in membership in Tree of Life. You would think that after a shul loses seven involved members to murder” — two other congregations shared space in the Tree of Life synagogue building, and four of the victims were from those synagogues — “you’d think that in a city where there was so much solidarity with the Jewish community that there would have been some movement to replenish the membership of Tree of Life.”
Instead, there was no evidence of a membership uptick in a congregation that a few decades ago had close to a thousand families and now has between 200 and 250.
“Some people within the congregation did step up their commitment and attendance, but less than you might have expected,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “You would think the first thing Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders would say, even those from other shuls, is ‘Let’s buy memberships in Tree of Life.’ ”
He doesn’t know why that happened, but he finds it perplexing.
Across the Pittsburgh Jewish community, the attacks were “a galvanizing event that brought Jews into closer contact with one another. It created more opportunities for community building outside of shul. There were people who got Jewishly active around gun control, around what they saw as Trump’s white nationalist agenda, and people who got active around Jewish self-defense and took a different perspective on guns.”
What can other communities learn from Squirrel Hill?
“The number one thing is interdenominational solidarity,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “In every community, Jews of all stripes, from secular to charedi, should know each other. The leaders and rabbis should have each other on their cell phones. Even if they disagree on everything, if an attack comes they will have big things in common. In Pittsburgh they have been very good at staying in touch across these divisions within the Jewish world.
“On Shavuot, the JCC in Squirrel Hill has classes taught by everyone. The Orthodox rabbis are at the JCC teaching alongside secular teachers. That’s really unusual.
“We should just all know each other better because we might need each other some day.”
Who: Mark Oppenheimer, director of Yale Journalism Initiative and host of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast
What: Talk about his new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood”
When: Sunday, December 19, 10 a.m.
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave. Teaneck
How much: It’s free and open to the public
Covid procedures: Unvacccinated people must wear masks