There’s an old joke that if there are two Jews, they will build three synagogues: one for one of them to join, one for the other, and one in which neither will step foot. For our queer Jewish family, Tree of Life was the Pittsburgh synagogue that didn’t fit. Of course, Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue is the spiritual home for many Pittsburgh Jews, and the congregants we met when we did visit were lovely. Now, Tree of Life, Etz Chayim, is the synagogue with the mass murder by a white supremacist who wanted all Jews to die.
These are the names:
Joyce Feinberg, 75
Rich Gotfried, 65
Rose Malinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54 (brothers)
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86 (a married couple)
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Youngner, 69
Like so many of us with ties to Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Jewry, I spent the 24 hours after the shooting worrying about friends and loved ones, hoping all of mine were okay but knowing that these folks who got to synagogue on time on a Saturday were not. I am grateful that my own family and close friends are safe, but I mourn for those listed, their friends and their families. As I see photos and remembrances start to appear on social media, I recognize faces I knew from the neighborhood. May their names be remembered and their deaths not wasted in murmurs of “thoughts and prayers” without action.
There have been so many assaults from white supremacists. We do have a terrorism problem in this country, and it isn’t from Muslims or immigrants. It is homegrown white supremacists, freed to unleash violence by our president who uses hateful language against all who are different. Just this last week has been tough. As a transgender person, I have been told by the Trump administration that my biology overpowered any gender identity or lived experience. As an American, I saw progressive politicians, a Jewish philanthropist, and a news organization receive explosive devices sent through the mail. Two black Americans were shot and killed in Kentucky Wednesday by a white man with a history of racist statements.
And Saturday, my own neighborhood was under attack.
I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, taking the school bus Friday afternoons from the suburbs to hang out at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Squirrel Hill, or the Eat ‘n Park up the street. My extended family all lived in the neighborhood, and we worshipped at one of the dozen or so synagogues there. As an adult, there was no question of living anywhere else in Pittsburgh. We lived in Squirrel Hill, walking to synagogue, sending our daughter to the synagogue daycare, singing along at Tot Shabbat and eating at the many delicious Asian restaurants in the area. Tree of Life was and is a fixture.
I live far away now, in an area where I am asked whether we have a different name for our Christmas tree since we don’t do Christmas, where we drive 40 miles to synagogue and, even when we get there, the entire religious school enrollment can be counted on one hand. I no longer live in this bosom of urban Jewry, where the Dunkin’ Donuts has kosher approval, and bakery options along the main drag include gluten-free, Taiwanese, Korean, or European. Friday nights mean large Orthodox families passing tipsy college students as one group heads home and the other out. Squirrel Hill wasn’t my address as a child, but it’s where I grew up, so to see it in mourning now wracks my personal foundations.
The comparisons I’ve seen have all been about Nazi Germany, and yes, those are terrifying. What happened to “Never Again”? But I’ve been thinking about Reconstruction lately. Reconstruction lasted from 1863-1877, just 14 years. Coalitions formed in which biracial state governments introduced programs to support a wide population base, funding public schools, improved railroads, and more. But to accomplish this required enfranchising former slaves and temporarily disenfranchising former Confederate officials. Conservative Democrats closely allied with the KKK, and the KKK carried out violent terrorism that intimidated blacks seeking to exercise their new civil rights.
Those are the facts. What I keep imagining, though, is what it felt like. What did it feel like to have a glimpse of an amazing future of equality and then have that stolen from you, not to be won again until at least the Civil Rights Movement? Fourteen years is just over three presidential terms, but Reconstruction did not end all at once. There were losses step by step, state by state. 1877 was just the formal end, when military intervention in Southern politics ended. It seems all too similar to the eight years in which I had hope under Obama, and the growing erosion of civil liberties and imposition of fear and hatred now under Trump. Following Reconstruction, white-controlled legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws. What did it feel like to lose?
When white supremacy and anti-Semitism hit in my hometown, I was afraid. I have white skin and citizenship, and so do not have the fears so many have, of course. Yet yesterday I had taken my small children on a local history trolley tour when I started receiving texts about the shooting. We were the only passengers on the trolley, and the driver asked me about where my husband was. He told jokes about drunk driving and battered wives.
I have seen calls to action regarding voting and speaking out. I hope that’s enough.
Zach Strassburger is a lawyer living in rural Minnesota.