Locals Remember How the Pittsburgh Shooting Unfolded

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Donald and Melania Trump walk next to Tree of Life building
The Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill where the shooting took place (Courtesy of Andrea Hanks, via Wikimedia)

As part of the Jewish Exponent’s commemorative coverage of the Pittsburgh shootings, we asked locals (included here in alphabetical order) to recall the moment they first heard about the shooting — and to reflect on what came after.

Naomi Adler, president and CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

I was at a conference in Israel and was preparing to return to Philadelphia later that day. I first learned about what happened when I received a call from a friend who works for ABC News asking for a comment. I was stunned and horrified, but somehow knew to get off the phone immediately and call Jeff Finkelstein, the CEO of Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, to offer my help and our Jewish Federation’s support. He was just walking to the synagogue to see firsthand what had happened, and I could hear the sirens over the phone.

My initial response of shock, horror and grief has evolved to a feeling of great resolve to ensure that I and our Jewish Federation lead the effort to fight this renewed scourge of anti-Semitism. There has never been a more crucial time for all of us to stand up against hate and protect one another from harm.

Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, executive director and campus rabbi, Hillel at Drexel University

I remember spending the morning making breakfast for my daughters while my wife was at shul. I hadn’t yet seen the news when I got messages from the dean of students and chief of police. There was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, they were sending extra public safety officers to the Perelman Center.

I remember feeling grateful that they were so swiftly taking care of the physical safety of our campus community, and I remember reeling at the thought that I would need to similarly care for our spiritual and emotional needs even as I couldn’t fathom the news myself. I texted my wife — is everything OK? Are you safe? I messaged my students from Pittsburgh — were their families OK? Then my student leaders — there was a shooting, we’ll figure out what’s next together. I buried myself in vigil planning, needing a distraction from processing the weight of the tragedy.

I have since traveled through dozens of emotional and spiritual responses to the tragedy, and accompanied my students through many more. Mostly, a year later, I am noticing the existential fear that has settled into our Jewish communal psyche, and I wonder about the long-term effects of that fear on all of us.

Steve Feldman, executive director, Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America

I learned about the shooting after Shabbos. Earlier in the day, I had read a headline that was an example of the kind of report that has the capacity to spark Jew-hatred: “Five Palestinians are shot dead by Israeli forces,” with a subhead, “Militants later fired several rockets into southern Israel.” To the uninformed rader, Jews murdered five random Arabs. The murder of Jews inside a synagogue was an act of Jew-hatred reportedly sparked because other Jews were doing something that the shooter found objectionable.

My initial reaction was one of grave concern. The Jewish community has been too lax in addressing all of the causes of Jew-hatred, as well as personal and institutional security, for a very long time. Now there was an attack that crystallized this. A year later, while I am heartened Jewish institutions are improving their security, there is a long way to go.

Members of the Jewish community as individuals are largely lackadaisical, security-wise, while seemingly oblivious to the factors that drive Jew-hatred in America and overseas. Attacks against Jews are rising dramatically, and the causes of it in the media, schools and among certain segments of the population remain unaddressed by many. ZOA addresses these every day, and locally we have had programs focusing on personal security for a number of years.

Rebecca Rhynhart, city controller, City of Philadelphia

Oct. 27, 2018, was a Saturday — a horrific and terrible day. The lives of the victims weren’t just lost, they were stolen. As a Jewish person, the act of violence that day hit me a sense of vulnerability, but I was also angry. It shouldn’t have happened.

As an elected official, I want to do everything I can to make sure something like this never happens again. I was in my first year as city controller when the shooting happened. Pittsburgh’s response to the shooting was incredible to watch: The city wrapped its arms around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and Tree of Life Synagogue community.

There was such empathy, such strength. Pittsburgh came together, regardless of race or religion, and showed all of us that love was stronger than hate in a really beautiful way

Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

I was in Israel visiting my son on Oct. 27, 2018, when my phone began to vibrate. I’m in a long-standing group chat with my lifelong best friends from the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. The first message simply read, “active shooter at Tree of Life??” My first reaction was, “must be a different Tree of Life.” I immediately called my brother, who lives across the street from the shul, and he’d yet to hear anything.

While on the phone with him, I heard the sirens begin to approach. Sick, angry, worried, fearful are just some of the emotions I began to feel. How could this be and who would I know that may be inside? It saddens me to know that Squirrel Hill, the greatest place a person could grow up, is now linked to this horrific tragedy. Not one day goes by where I don’t think of this terrible event. Squirrel Hill will persevere and will not only be fine, it will thrive, so will the Jewish people — we always do. But this memory won’t go away, nor will the memories of the Tree of Life 11. May their memories continue to be a blessing.

Josh Shapiro, attorney general of Pennsylvania

I was spending Saturday morning at home with my family when my phone started buzzing with texts and calls about an active shooter in Pittsburgh. I quickly got on the phone, checking in with Pittsburghers and connecting with our team at the Office of Attorney General who were at the scene.

I then headed to Pittsburgh. As soon as I was on the ground in Squirrel Hill at Tree of Life, it really hit me — our commonwealth, and my own Jewish faith, were under attack.

Oct. 27, 2018 is a day I will never forget. The images are seared in my memory — the scene of the attack juxtaposed with people of all faiths, all races, all backgrounds coming together in the midst of tragedy at the corner of Forbes and Murray. It reinforced in me that our bonds with each other, and our covenant with God, are too strong to be broken by the ugly hatred that walked into Tree of Life that day.

One year later, the legacy of those who lost their lives endures. We must honor them by uniting to condemn the culture of hate that spurred this attack. Hate speech begets hate crimes. Words matter — so let’s use them carefully, practice peaceful discourse and recognize our commonalities are stronger than our differences.

Micah Symons, student, Drexel University

I had overslept my alarm that day and ended up not going to Shabbat services. I had seen some texts and phone calls from people with whom I had not been in contact for a while, so I knew that something had happened, but I ignored the messages until I actually started my day, when I came across dozens of texts of condolences and updates from my parents. It’s worth noting at this point that I come from the Pittsburgh Jewish community, so this attack was instantaneously unlike any other mass shooting I had seen on the news.

I admittedly do not remember my initial response, as that day was a blur of phone calls and texts with my family. I found out that my father, a rabbi in the community, was actually down the street at the time of the shooting. Ultimately, as I attended several vigils and learned more about the what and how of that day, a general sense of numbness washed over me, a numbness I still feel today.

After seeing all of these mass shootings on TV, it was finally my community (albeit not my home synagogue) that was caught in the crossfire. What reaction can I have?

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