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Tree of Life Community Still Grieving, Healing Two Years After Attack

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Kathleen J. Davis
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90.5 WESA
On October 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and killed 11 worshippers in the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

 

On today's program: The Tree of Life community continues to live with the aftermath of the 2018 attack; a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and the Tree of Life worshipper shares his story; and a writer documents the resilience of the Squirrel Hill community in a new book.

Tree of Life congregation “traumatized twice,” by attack, and then pandemic, says rabbi
(00:00 — 9:47)

Two years ago today, the violent attack on morning worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue killed 11 people and brought the threat of domestic terrorism and extremism into stark view for the city of Pittsburgh. Signs reading “Stronger than hate” popped up in yards, conversations happened outside of places of worship, and despite others’ desires to divide, some say the community only came closer together.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the spiritual leader of the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation, was there during the attack. He says two years later, he still experiences good and bad moments.

“I’ve come to recognize that that’s what trauma and grief is about,” he says. “You learn to live with the good moments, you learn to live with the bad moments, you integrate it into your being. But in the end you hope, that is, you look at the overall picture that the scale is moving upwards little by little.”

The congregation has held worship services at Rodef Shalom synagogue since November 2018. Myers says members are getting anxious about returning to their spiritual home, but the pandemic complicated matters and moved services online.

“For my congregation, they’ve been traumatized twice. Once by being forcibly evicted from their spiritual home by this act of evil, and then a second time being forced to self-quarantine,” he says. “So they’ve been doubly booted.”

Myers says he’s learned to find joy and things to celebrate. 

“I’ve learned to look for them as opposed to waiting for joy to knock on your door. It doesn’t always work that way,” he says. “You want to go out and you want to find the joy, the beauty of being alive.”

Surviving a Nazi concentration camp prepared Judah Samet to survive the Tree of Life attack, he says
(9:50 — 15:39)

Judah Samet, 82, survived the Nazi concentration camp Bergen Belsen in Germany as a child. More than seven decades later, he was there for the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Samet says in the two years since the attack, the Tree of Life community has been affected differently. 

“What impressed me about Pittsburgh, that the whole city—Jews, non-Jews, even Muslims—they all felt a part of it,” he says.

His life experiences first in the concentration camp and then in an orphanage prepared him to be resilient, he says.

“As far as resilience in my case, I always said my mother had three qualities: first, she was a beautiful woman, secondly she was smart of the box, thirdly, she was fearless. That’s what I inherited from her. I’m fearless.”

New book chronicles Squirrel Hill community in the months after the Tree of Life attack
(15:41 — 21:14)

Mark Oppenheimer, a former religion reporter for the New York Times and host of the podcast Unorthodox, made 32 trips to Pittsburgh and conducted about 250 interviews in the year and a half following the Tree of Life attack, collecting stories about Squirrel Hill and the shooting. Now, he’s turning those stories into a book about the resilience of the community.

 

“The question that I started coming to Pittsburgh with was, how does the fact of Squirrel Hill, with its close-knit neighborhood—close-knit both geographically, but also emotionally and spiritually—affect people’s recovery in the aftermath of a mass tragedy?” Oppenheimer asks.

He says that although the story is sad, the project was ultimately a hopeful one.

“You hear lots of stories of people doing for each other. You hear stories of people coming together, helping out, and overcoming boundaries, he says. “And those are pretty hopeful stories.”

The book will be published in August 2021. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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