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For Pittsburgh Jews, grief over the Tree of Life shooting is still local

In the past week, my home became a headline. Eleven Jews were shot and killed during Saturday morning services at Tree of Life Synagogue — where my sister taught Hebrew school and I went to my first bat mitzvah. The Squirrel Hill Jewish community, which has been such a glowing and prominent feature of my upbringing, became the victim of the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.

On a national level, Squirrel Hill has become the location of the 294th mass shooting this year. For most, it is simply another name on a devastating list — devastating in the abstract sense, with imagined houses and faceless people. Politicians and journalists have covered the shooting, the endless line of volunteers donating blood, and the packed vigil on the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues. It has become a rallying call to vote, to support or oppose gun control. Mr. Rogers quotes have made punchy headlines and stood in poignant counterpoint to this week’s violence. 


It does not seem real that every vibration of my phone brings news of Squirrel Hill. My neighborhood is being prayed for, trending, and could become a name like “Parkland,” nationally recognized and discussed with solemn, yet impersonal reverence. And though I am glad the shooting is receiving attention on a national level, with a ubiquitous condemnation of anti-Semitism that is pathetically heartening under a president who responded to the 2017 Unite the Right rally by saying that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” most of the comments just don’t feel quite right. 

To me and my neighbors, it was not just an attack on the city of Pittsburgh and not just an assault against the Jewish people, but also a violation of our community. 

Of the 6,400 kids who are raised Jewish in the Greater Pittsburgh area, a substantial number of them live in Squirrel Hill. The majority of us grew up involved with the thriving local Jewish network. Some of us went to the local Jewish Community Day School, some went to Emma Kaufmann Camp. We were members of youth groups and Jewish leadership programs. Most of us did community service with J-Serve, took classes at J Line, did endless extracurriculars at the JCC. When I took the SAT IIs, half the room was taking the Hebrew test. 

I have interned for the World Zionist Organization, gone to Shabbat dinner at Princeton, and worked at the National Museum of American Jewish History. I have been a part of Jewish communities in Israel and in the United States, local and national. None have felt like the one in Pittsburgh.

We had so much genuine ease and pride in being Jewish. Defining our identities was not just a matter of what music we liked or clothing we wore, but also what form our Judaism took, what role it played in our lives. Adults working at the JCC became friends and mentors. Our non-Jewish friends used to count down the days until the first night of Passover, when they would come over to our houses and sit at the table with us during Seder. We aren’t just Pittsburghers, we aren’t just Jews — we are Pittsburgh Jews, an identity all its own. This identity has just suffered a shattering blow. 

And it’s clear to me that those who have not experienced the warmth of the Jewish community in Squirrel Hill will never be able to really understand it. The words “Squirrel Hill” will remain black and white, filler syllables to talk about national political issues or and the rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. And in a year when we are already 294th on the list, I would expect nothing else. 


But in my text message inbox, my FaceTimes, and my Facebook feed, those words mean more. The impact of this attack is broad, reverberating through a country in turmoil and a global Jewish community. Do not forget, however, that for Pittsburgh Jews, the pain of this attack is also local, personal, and right now — different from for those looking at the big picture. We are grieving for our upbringing, our home, and above all, the eleven murdered Jews whose names should never be forgotten. The Jews who should have been safe at services in our very own Squirrel Hill. 

Noa Wollstein is a sophomore from Plainview, N.Y. She can be reached at noaw@princeton.edu.

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