Three Years On, Lessons from Squirrel Hill: Q&A with Mark Oppenheimer

By Dan Friedman

Three Years On, Lessons from Squirrel Hill: Q&A with Mark Oppenheimer

Author photo: Lotta Studio

On October 27, 2018 the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was shocked when a gunman opened fire at one of the local synagogues. He had chosen the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building for his act of unprecedented hate because one of the three communities it housed was a proud supporter of HIAS. The murder of 11 Jews during Sabbath worship was terrible and, frighteningly, could easily have been worse.

Published this month, Mark Oppenheimer’s new book Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood traces the response of the community — including HIAS supporters and local affiliates — in the weeks and months after the attack.

Oppenheimer is a Yale PhD, a host of the Unorthodox podcast, an accomplished essayist and author of, among other books, Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.

HIAS discussed with Oppenheimer what we can learn from the community, the event, and its aftermath. As a descendant of Pittsburgh family, a keen observer of American religious life, and a persistent, gregarious reporter Oppenheimer has a unique combination of insight into the community and ability to explain the wider ramifications of its tragedy.

HIAS: The shooter found out about the particular synagogue because of a HIAS meeting that was being held there, but how central do you think immigration policies were to the events of October 27, 2018 and its aftermath?

Oppenheimer: I am wary of making any very specific claims about what causes a particular antisemitic attack, or wave of attacks, not least because the perpetrators are seldom very articulate, may be mentally ill, and often are never available for questioning (Robert Bowers, the alleged Pittsburgh shooter, made some scattered comments on social media, but has not been interviewed since his arrest and has not yet been brought to trial). Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that the general rise in far-right bigotry is more closely tied to immigration than to any other one issue. Put another way, my read of the dominant strain of murderous bigotry in America right now is that it is more grounded in xenophobia, and the general fear of outsiders, than in, say, particular conspiracy theories about Jews, or particular beliefs in Black people's inferiority, to take two examples.

You call this a “uniquely bloody slaughter of Jews” — but there have, sadly, been “bloody slaughter(s) of Jews” throughout history. How do you understand this as unique?

You have caught me in an imprecision. It is a uniquely bloody slaughter of Jews in the United States — by far the deadliest attack on Jews ever to have happened in this country. That is significant, because this country has been one of the safest ever for Jews. If you asked me what countries have, in the past couple centuries, allowed Jews to flourish, with the assurance of physical security and the opportunity to join mainstream institutions, on our own terms, I think Canada (a younger country, of course), would be our only rival.

What can other communities learn about the principles of “welcome” from Squirrel Hill?

Squirrel Hill has not only welcomed Jews, since the beginning — the neighborhood was always religiously integrated, never with a majority of Jews but always with a substantial minority — but continues to welcome a diverse range of communities; right now, for example, there is a growing population of East Asian ancestry.

It has also welcomed communities within communities: it has been as hospitable to black-hatted and other Orthodox Jews as to secular and Reform Jews, which is hardly the rule in America. Some Reform communities fight eruvs, for example, in part to keep more religious Jews out. But in Squirrel Hill there is diversity within communities, as well as among them.

You tell the stories of rabbis, informal leaders and also about President Trump’s visit. What role do you see leaders playing at moments like this?

Obviously, there is an expectation that formal leaders, like rabbis and politicians, make a public show of support. Some people were mad at President Trump for coming, but others would have been mad had he not come. To me, the more interesting lesson of Squirrel Hill is how many different kinds of leaders there are. The organizers of the two chevra kadishas — literally, “holy societies,” but actually meaning the Jewish burial societies — mattered more than the governor or president.

In the book you talk implicitly and explicitly about the diversity of Squirrel Hill — of immigrants from Germany, Russia, Asia, where even the Jewish community was dense but heterogeneous. How do you think this affected the community's response?

I think the diversity — which is block by block, and house by house, with most people have close neighbors of different religions and often ethnicities — helped foster the preexisting social ties that made the neighborhood so responsive. It's not as if on the morning of October 27, 2018, the Christians and Muslims of Pittsburgh decided to reach out to Jews, get to know them, and help them; it's a city where the groups already knew each other, and where leaders had been making a point of fostering social connections in the good times, so they were poised to be there for each other when the bad times came.