WATCH: On the 5th Commemoration of the Largest US Jewish Massacre, a Divided, but Equally Traumatized Neighborhood

A woman stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh shortly after the massacre in October 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH, PA – Outside the Tree of Life synagogue, a group of Orthodox Jewish teenage girls clad in long black dresses used chalk to draw symbols of the sabbath and peace on the sidewalk. The girls were marking the 5th anniversary of the 11 Jews that were killed there in the biggest massacre of Jews in U.S. history. 

“When someone comes in and brings a lot of darkness into the world, the only thing that we can do is bring more light,” says 17-year-old Basya Taub, who attends the Yeshiva High School three blocks from the synagogue.

Her friend tells me she was only 12 when the massacre occurred but that their group is determined to keep the memory alive as they stand outside of the synagogue, drawing in chalk and handing out flowers. 

“We’re just telling them like, here’s a flower just to spread love and kindness and remember the 11 souls that we lost five years ago today. Really we just want to make the world again a brighter, happier place,” says Basya. 

While many elsewhere have forgotten the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, for Jews locally, it’s a living pain that haunts many of us, a struggle that has become more painful this year as many Jews in the neighborhood have debated ferociously what the massacre in our neighborhood means in the context of international politics.

“We wrestle with it every year. What are we going to do? It’s yeah, it’s a really difficult topic to handle,” says Joshua Friedman of the progressive group Bend the Arc Jewish Action. “How are we going to commemorate it? How are we going to turn that grief into action? And it’s been, it’s a difficult process”. 

“It’s this month that we dream about skipping,” says Friedman of the commemoration of the massacre every October. 

Every year, as the autumn turns cold in late October, I, too, find myself struggling through panic attacks and occasional crying as I struggle to figure out how to commemorate, once again, the murder of so many Jews in our neighborhood. 

On the morning of the massacre five years ago, I woke up to frantic phone calls and text messages that there was an ongoing shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Seeing my friends on twitter braving gunfire to cover the outgoing shooting, I immediately called the Guardian’s weekend editor in New York and volunteered to cover the gun battle. 

As I prepared to leave my house, my father called me and warned me against going into what was an active shooter situation. But as a Jew who had caught the bus in front of the synagogue, I wanted to be there to record something that would matter to Jews in our community for a long time to come. 

It happened five years ago, but I found myself thinking so often of watching a sea of cops and ambulances that were amassed in front of my childhood bus stop as I arrived at the synagogue that morning mere minutes after the gunfire stopped. 

Often, when riding to my parent’s house on the bus, I find myself tearing up passing the synagogue. When I get unsteady in those moments, I find myself thinking of the thousands in the neighborhood who marched that night for immigrants’ rights and against hate. A handful of people carried Israeli flags with the Star of David, while some others chanted slogans like “Safety through Solidarity.” 

In the hours and days of the massacre, I struggled with the trauma of what occurred; I buried myself in my work, covering the Jewish call for justice as a way to cope with the pain. 

But now I find myself struggling more than ever to find the words to describe the divisions that mark our local Jewish community as Israel bombs Gaza. 

Howard Fienberg’s mother, Joyce, was killed in the massacre, and he says that the commemoration is a reminder of why it’s so important to back Israel’s attacks on Gaza. 

“It’s been 20 days since 5,000 Israelis were massacred, and taken hostage, raped, injured,” says Fienberg. “And while we’re here able to commemorate this, with a community that gives a damn, those 5,000 are not given the same level of respect in the slightest by the majority of the world, including lots in our own country; they are not interested in justice for those victims”. 

Official reports cite a different number of victims of the Hamas attack. Israeli forces claim that approximately 1,400 were killed, while the Gaza Health Ministry reports approximately 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory operations on Gaza, including more than 3,400 children. 

For Fienberg, the son of a woman killed in a Jewish massacre, the trauma of those dead in Israel is genuine. However, he has the strong impression that others don’t share in his pain as a Jew. 

“The marches and people shouting death to the Jews or the equivalent certainly gives that impression,” says Fienberg. “In the desire that as soon as 1,000s of [Israelis] are murdered, that we need to worry about a bit of the well-being of a terrorist group, but it suggests to me that people don’t really care about justice for [these Israelis]”. 

When asked about the military effectiveness of a campaign that has killed so many civilians, Fienberg simply shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know, I am not a military strategist. That’s not my role, that’s not for me, but justice needs to be done”. 

However, even some survivors of the massacre disagree with Fienberg.

Earlier this year, some Dor Hadash congregants, including survivors of the massacre, traveled to the West Bank. Dor Hadash Rabbi Amy Bardack, whose congregation was one of three based in the Tree of Life building, said the trip was eye-opening for her, particularly a visit with a Palestinian who feared being forced off his land. 

 “The fear and anxiety that he spoke about reminds me of those early days after the shooting.” Bardack told the Times of Israel earlier this year. 

At the annual commemoration ceremony, there was no mention of politics or Israel. Speakers from the commemoration only made vague calls for peace. 

There was also no mention from the commemoration that the shooter explicitly said that he targeted Tree of Life and Dor Hadash because the congregation supported immigrants’ rights, a detail that has been left out of past commemorations. 

“When you go to a commemoration ceremony, and they’re not bringing up immigrants’ rights and the real basis for why this shooter was motivated to commit this crime, it’s whitewashing history,” says Friedman, who is involved with the progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc. “It’s erasing history of why did this happen? It didn’t come only because the people here were Jewish, it came because they were supporting the rights of immigrants”. 

In 2022, Bend the Arc Jewish Action Pittsburgh endorsed Summer Lee for Congress against former Anti-Defamation Leader of Pittsburgh leader Steve Irwin, whom AIPAC and its allies backed with nearly $5 million in outside spending. 

The organization worked hard to go door-to-door and organize support for Lee in synagogues, helping Lee narrowly win the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and win the seat by a mere 988 votes. 

However, even now, Bend the Arc is avoiding taking a position on Israel’s attack on Gaza.  

“Bend the Arc doesn’t work on international issues so it can build partnerships that may otherwise be contentious because of views on international issues,” says Friedman. 

While last week’s official commemoration of the massacre avoided the subject of Israel and Palestine, some politicians attending the event were all too eager to cite the killings to justify Israel’s attack on Gaza. 

At the edge of the ceremony, clad in trademark basketball shorts and black hoodie on this misty 50-degree day, was Senator John Fetterman.

Fetterman, who is not Jewish, has refused to back a ceasefire and has denounced those who have supported it.  

Last week, after someone spray painted the phrase “Free Palestine PGH-Gaza” on the side of local Allderdice high school down the street from the massacre, Fetterman tweeted that the graffiti was “reprehensible.” Then, Fetterman tweeted out a photo of his Senate wall with pictures of Hamas’ Israeli hostage, saying that “the only thing that belongs on a wall right now is this.” 

When I asked Fetterman why he objected so much to someone spray painting the phrase “Free Palestine – PGH-Gaza” on a high school, he falsely stated that the message read, “Free Palestine from the river to sea, Palestine will be free.” 

Fetterman defended his denouncement of the spraying painting. 

“I don’t believe that whatever message you’re able to make shouldn’t be vandalized on a high school in the middle of Squirrel Hill, “says Fetterman. “I am really about making sure that Israel is able to do what Israel deserves to do.” 

When I asked Fetterman about statements against the occupation by Jews who survived the massacre, he refused to respond to critique. He puts his hands inside his hoodie and walks away with a very professional “Thank You.” 

What Fetterman fails to bring up is the millions of dollars in campaign spending by AIPAC and the hard-right Israeli lobby have played in shaping his views. During the 2022 Pa Senate primary against former Congressman Conor Lamb, a hard-right Israel hawk, Fetterman’s campaign worried that AIPAC would back Lamb. 

According to the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, Fetterman’s campaign then met with hardcore right-wing Israeli groups like Democratic Majority for Israel. It worked closely with them to draft his campaign statements on Israel. With the hard-right Israeli lobby backing him, Fetterman beat Lamb by a whopping 32%, paving the way for his election as Pennsylvania’s next Senator. 

Standing a few feet from Fetterman is Congressman Summer Lee, who, unlike Fetterman, declined to speak to the press on Israel’s attack on Gaza at the commemoration ceremony last week. In the spring of 2022, Lee saw her 25% lead in the local Congressional primary dwindle to a mere 988 margin of victory after AIPAC and its allies spent nearly $5 million against her. 

The week prior, Lee had cited the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at a rally on Capitol Hill. 

“Peace means that we hold space for each and every one of us in our community, including my Jewish Community. Our beloved community in Pittsburgh, who five years from the commemoration of the worst anti-semitic attack, is reliving so much pain and so much trauma,” said Lee. “But, we don’t stand here to add to that pain. We stand here to say that we will stand against any more pain to come”. 

Lee’s comment garnered criticism from local Beth Shalom Rabbi Seth Adelson. 

“I am a little disappointed that [Lee] has not been more proactive in finding the right language and forum in which to speak to and support her Jewish constituents on Israel,” Rabbi Adelson told the New York Times in a high-profile interview last Sunday. 

While the politics of Israel and Palestine were not mentioned during last week’s official commemoration, it was impossible to ignore the deep tension within this deeply traumatized Jewish community on the subject.

However, as I stood and listened to a group of survivors read a prayer for peace, I could not help but think how the language of their prayer mirrored Congresswoman Lee for continuing the cycle of hate and violence. 

“We asked for wisdom that we might mourn and not be consumed by hatred, that we might remember, and yet not lose hope,” said a group of survivors in a prayer from the commemoration ceremony. “We cannot erase yesterday’s pains, but we can vow that they will not have been suffered in vain. And so we pray for those who were given death. Let us choose life or us and for generations yet to come. We must teach ourselves and our children to learn from the hate”. 

(Filmed by Remington Sinclair)

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]