Michelle Gustafson

The Fight to Make Meaning Out of a Massacre

Pittsburgh’s synagogue shooting was the deadliest attack on Jews on American soil. Over the past year, community members have struggled to do something constructive with their tragedy. But they have been divided on whether politics should guide their reaction.

PITTSBURGH—For nearly a year now, the peaceful, friendly Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill has been plastered with signs—taped on windows, forked in yards, covering telephone poles. They feature hearts and Stars of David, often superimposed on the tricolored logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are reminders of the October shooting that killed 11 Jews as they prayed inside the Tree of Life synagogue, poster-board talismans of solidarity and defiance. This community, the signs declare, is “stronger than hate.”

In the months since the shooting, not everyone in the Pittsburgh Jewish community has agreed on what it means to be “stronger than hate,” much less on why the attack happened in the first place. Three different views, roughly, have emerged. Some people have called for the return of American civility, preaching that tolerance and dialogue can beat back the shooter’s unfathomable bigotry. Others believe this shooting was part of the Jew hatred that reemerges in every generation, convinced that it might have taken place no matter the state of American politics.

And then there are the Jews who have turned to activism, guided by the conviction that the right political solutions can prevent future injustices. This response to the shooting, more than any other, exposes the hopefulness, and fragility, of the American Jewish experience. Jews in the United States are safer than Jews have been anywhere at any point in history. That stability has nurtured a liberal theology that prizes tikkun olam—a dedication to “repairing the world”—above all else. But this deadly act of anti-Semitism is testing whether universal, progressive principles adequately address targeted violence against Jews. Politics can feel like a thin solution to evil.

Pittsburgh’s synagogue shooting stands as the deadliest attack on Jews on American soil—a jolt back to other times in history, in other places, when violence was part of the rhythm of Jewish life. The shooting has revived old debates about how Jews should relate to power: Accommodate reigning leaders, or push against them? Prioritize protection of the community, or try to change the world for others? The Jews of Pittsburgh feel called to do something constructive with their tragedy, to make some sort of meaning out of what happened to them. At stake is a specifically American vision of Judaism that does not have to be tied to victimhood and violence, and that sees a possibility for justice in the world.

For months after the shooting, people left notes, drawings, and stones outside of the Tree of Life synagogue to show their support for the community.

Squirrel Hill, the geographic heart of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, feels distinctly Jewish. The kosher grocery store and pizza shops are landmarks. A clock tower marking time in Hebrew letters, rather than Arabic numerals, sits atop the Jewish Community Center at the central intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues. Those who live in Squirrel Hill see the neighborhood as cozy and idyllic. Big, creaky prewar houses line the streets near a sun-filled library and a local diner where the pancakes have a cult following. Cashiers at many of the local businesses chat up customers and know their regulars.

The weather was already chilly last fall on October 27, with red and gold leaves dotting the neighborhood’s towering trees. Saturday-morning services, when most Jewish congregations meet to pray and read from the Torah, had barely gotten under way at most of Squirrel Hill’s synagogues. The steadfast regulars and old-timers were just starting their opening prayers at Tree of Life when, at about 9:50 a.m., 46-year-old Robert Bowers, a long-haul truck driver, allegedly entered carrying three handguns and an AR-15, and moved through the building, shooting and killing worshippers. According to a criminal complaint, he spoke openly about his hatred of Jews as he went, accusing the Jewish people of genocide and emphasizing that they needed to die. Within roughly four minutes, 911 knew that an active shooter was in the synagogue. The worshippers who realized what was happening tried to find safe places to hide, in the bathroom and a storage closet.

Outside, people were still pulling into the parking lot, unaware of what was going on. Judah Samet, a now-81-year-old Holocaust survivor who was a few minutes late to services that morning, was urgently waved away by a man in a black windbreaker crouched near the building. “It took me about 60, maybe 90 seconds to process,” Samet told me during a conversation at his apartment in Pittsburgh this winter. Through his passenger-side window, he could see Bowers exchanging gunfire with the police. He drove away, not knowing the name of the man who had saved him. Samet believes he might have been an angel.

It took police roughly 40 minutes to get inside the synagogue, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Pulitzer Prizewinning reporting on the shooting. About an hour and 20 minutes after Bowers entered the building, officers successfully negotiated his surrender and exit. Twenty-two members of three separate congregations were inside during the attack. Eleven people were killed, and several others, including officers, were injured.

Dor Hadash was one of three congregations holding services inside the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. Now, a large fence surrounds the building.

The building’s namesake congregation, Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha, was holding services upstairs, in the Pervin Chapel. It lost seven members, the most of any congregation. The group’s long, combined name bears the imprint of schisms and mergers: Tree of Life started in 1864 after it broke off from Pittsburgh’s storied Reform congregation, Rodef Shalom, and in 2010 joined with Or L’Simcha, which had splintered from another congregation.

Another congregation, New Light, started renting space in the Tree of Life basement about a year before the attack. Like Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha, the congregation belongs to Judaism’s Conservative movement. New Light was founded to serve Pittsburgh’s once-bustling Romanian population. Now it is small and aging. Three of its members were killed.

And then there is Dor Hadash, a progressive congregation full of lawyers and academics, known in town for its political activism. The congregation is part of the Reconstructionist movement, which split from the Conservative movement in the 1950s and today claims to have around 90 congregations in the United States. Dor Hadash lost one member in the shooting; its services had been scheduled to start later than the services for the other two.

[Read: The Jews of Pittsburgh bury their dead]

Members of the three congregations didn’t mingle much before the shooting, outside of occasional shared events. And they have had different ways of grappling with the daunting political implications of the attack.

The cracks started showing shortly after the Saturday shooting. President Donald Trump announced that he would visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday, when the first victims’ funerals were scheduled to take place. The Jewish activist group Bend the Arc quickly organized a protest, channeling the community’s rage: Jewish Pittsburgh leans blue, especially around Squirrel Hill. The last person many people wanted to see in the midst of their grief was Trump.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi and cantor of Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha, emerged as the face of the Jewish community. He was inside the building during the attack, and he was the most willing of any of the community’s leaders to speak with the press. Myers announced on CNN that he would welcome the president to Pittsburgh. Some members of his community resolutely thought it was the right thing to do. “I’m proud of him, period,” Judah Samet told me. Part of Trump’s own family is Jewish: His daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, tweeted that “all good Americans stand with the Jewish people to oppose acts of terror & share the horror, disgust & outrage over the massacre in Pittsburgh.”

Across the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, signs declare that the city is “no place for hate.”

Others, however, did not agree with the choice to welcome the president. As Trump and his family arrived in the neighborhood, hundreds of people quietly marched through the streets near the synagogue, bearing signs with messages such as Trump’s Lies Kill and Make Racism Wrong Again.

This was the first big test of how Jewish Pittsburgh would respond to the attack: whether the community’s leaders would reject partisan politics in pursuit of unity, or call out the president for seemingly fostering xenophobia and turning a blind eye to the rise of white nationalism. During a large vigil held at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall the day after the attack, leaders tested language for talking about the shooting, rejecting hate and reaffirming the community’s strength and togetherness. Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, vowed to “defeat hate with love” and “drive anti-Semitism and the hate of any people … away from the open discussions and dialogues around this city, around this state, and around this country.” Among Pittsburgh’s leaders, this sentiment has been the most persistent framing of the attack, perhaps in part because it appeals across ideological lines. This is the message of the signs scattered around Squirrel Hill: Hate was the reason for the shooting, and hate is the enemy to be defeated.

Some members of the community, especially members of Dor Hadash, have pushed for more precision. To them, “hate” is not a specific enough descriptor. It inhabits particular forms: Guns. Anti-immigrant rhetoric. Anti-Semitic vitriol. White nationalism. “I don’t want to end ‘hate,’” Eve Wider, a Dor Hadash member, told me. “I want to end gun violence. I want to end anti-Semitism. I want to end the wall” at the border, “the ban” restricting entry to the United States for people from some Muslim-majority countries, “all of the things.” Although like any community Dor Hadash embodies a range of perspectives, its members typify a certain kind of liberal American Jew: highly educated, social-justice-oriented, and committed to principles such as tikkun olam. In this overwhelmingly progressive circle, many people don’t just dislike the president. They believe he bears some responsibility for the bigotry behind the shooting.

“I was … just furious. Enraged would be a better term,” Pam Goldman, a past co-president of Dor Hadash and a retired civil-rights attorney, told me. In the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, which took place shortly after the shooting, the president talked nonstop about the threat of refugees and immigrants, including the so-called caravan approaching the southern U.S. border. “Talking about the refugee caravan as … a group of people who were criminals fueled the kind of hatred and fear that leads to shootings like the one that happened at our synagogue,” Goldman said. On the Saturday morning of the attack, Bowers echoed these sentiments on the social-media network Gab, calling immigrants “invaders.” “Trump didn’t pull the trigger,” Goldman told me, “but I felt like he was setting the stage.”

Members of the Dor Hadash congregation set up the chapel for a Shabbat service at Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh. The congregation has been holding its services there since the shooting.

Dor Hadash has always cherished its reputation as a social-justice synagogue, Judy Yanowitz, a board member, told me. That identity has been “amplified, in part, since the shooting,” she said, “directly in response to the Tree of Life community, to Rabbi Myers allowing Trump to visit the synagogue.”

[Read: How will Pittsburgh’s Jews translate tragedy into action?]

Representatives of the New Light congregation have also spoken out politically. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman co-wrote an op-ed condemning Trump’s declaration of a state of “national emergency” at the southern border, teaming up with Eric Manning, the senior pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the target of a white-supremacist shooting in 2015. Perlman’s wife, Beth Kissileff, published a column speaking out against the possibility that Bowers will get the death penalty, arguing that this would violate Jewish traditions of justice and further dishonor the Jewish community. When the Justice Department announced in late August that it would seek the death penalty, leaders from both Dor Hadash and New Light expressed frustration. (Bowers has pleaded not guilty.)

But as a congregation—in private conversations and in public—Dor Hadash members have been the most willing to speak out sharply against the current political environment, and specifically against the president. Leaders of the planning committee for the shooting’s one-year commemoration stated in a recent press conference that they will not entertain questions about politics on that day, October 27, out of respect for the victims’ families. And yet, at the same event, Dor Hadash’s leaders made it clear that they think white supremacy, immigration, and gun control should be central issues of focus. In December, Pittsburgh Magazine ran a series of reflections from community faith leaders about the shooting. “We do think it’s important to make it clear that while we respect Rabbi Myers … he didn’t speak for the whole community when he was speaking to the national media,” wrote Donna Coufal, Dor Hadash’s current president. “Clearly, the leadership of the country has been promoting hateful language, and that’s a problem.”

Roughly 10 days after the shooting, a handful of Dor Hadash members sat in a circle in one member’s living room. Their community had found ways to be together nearly every night following the attack, whether at formal gatherings or in small groups. This meeting was different, however. The people gathered that night were members of the congregation’s social-action committee. And they were determined to translate tragedy into action.

Dor Hadash sees social action and civic engagement as part of its religious identity. Its advocacy might have caught the shooter’s attention and drawn him to the Tree of Life building: In mid-October, right before the attack, the social-action committee led a “Refugee Shabbat” as part of a project by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, now known as HIAS, a Jewish organization that supports immigrants and refugees. Prior to the shooting, Bowers posted on Gab a screenshot of the event page on the HIAS website, apparently blaming Jews for bringing immigrants to America. At the scene, he allegedly told police that Jews are “committing genocide to my people.”

The Dor Hadash members gathered that night felt painfully aware of that link. They were in no way responsible for the shooting, but they still felt implicated. “The actions of our committee, potentially, were connected with why the shooter decided to come to this building on this day,” said Wider, one of the Dor Hadash members who attended the meeting that night.

Still, the group was intent on continuing the advocacy work that had always defined the community. The subcommittee on immigrant and refugee support would keep operating, the members decided. But they also wanted to take on a new issue: guns. Like victims of other recent mass shootings in America, many of Dor Hadash’s members believed the shooting could have been mitigated had Bowers not had access to the Colt AR-15 he allegedly brought into the Tree of Life building, in addition to three handguns.

Jewish congregations, as religious nonprofits, aren’t allowed to engage in explicit political advocacy, such as endorsing or opposing candidates for office. But in the weeks that followed the attack, as Dor Hadash members continued to meet to discuss what would come next, they decided that political advocacy would be necessary. Three members—Wider, Dana Kellerman, and Carolyn Ban—set out to create a new, independent organization.

In some ways, these women are unlikely candidates to become the face of the next gun-control crusade. Sitting in her open, brightly painted apartment over a small kitchen-and-bath shop in Squirrel Hill this winter, Wider, who runs a library at a regional campus of the University of Pittsburgh, described herself as introverted. She tends to sit with her body curled as small as possible, and admitted that speaking with the press makes her nervous. Kellerman works as a veterinarian and lives in the suburbs with her teenaged son, and she looks the part—angular haircut, soft black pants, smart watch.* She oversees youth education for the board of Dor Hadash. The other member of the group, Carolyn Ban, is a retired professor. (“She’s a little like Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Wider told me. “Small of stature, but mighty.”)

Clockwise from top left: Carolyn Ban, a retired professor; Eve Wider, a university librarian; and Dana Kellerman, a veterinarian. Together, these women founded Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, and have spent the past year pushing for gun reforms at all levels of government.

The women didn’t know one another very well before the shooting, but they share a conviction that staging rallies, registering people to vote, and calling members of Congress can change the world. Their decision to take up gun-control advocacy is not just a sign of their confidence in the power of political activism. It’s also an attempt to reclaim their power to act after an attack on their community at its most vulnerable: during prayer. Their new group, called Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, has slowly taken shape. In February, it formally became a program of an established organization, CeaseFirePA, which has helped it set specific goals: establishing “extreme-risk protection orders,” which allow family and police to seek court intervention blocking access to firearms for people who may harm themselves or others; requiring comprehensive background checks for gun purchases; and eliminating widespread access to what they call military-style weapons, such as the one Bowers allegedly used. The women also plan to canvass on gun issues during the next election cycle. For now, they’re most focused on lobbying their representatives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital: “Most legislators don’t really want to be seen refusing to take a meeting with the survivors of a mass shooting,” Kellerman told me.

Squirrel Hill Stands, as the women sometimes call it, remains in its early stages. The group sends out a weekly newsletter with updates on its progress and scripts for people to use in conversations with their legislators. Roughly 130 people have signed up for the newsletter so far; interest in their group has been growing steadily, but slowly. In late April, the group hosted an official kickoff—a combination of march, rally, and memorial—that introduced Squirrel Hill Stands to the world. In early August, the group co-hosted a vigil and rally after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas; Rabbi Perlman of New Light was among the speakers. In general, however, Jewish community participation in the group is still limited. “I would have wished, at this point, that we would have had more people from the other congregations part of us,” Wider told me recently.

Considerable obstacles lie ahead, even in a liberal city like Pittsburgh and a purple state like Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, two city-council members who represent areas in and near Squirrel Hill, Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger, proposed a set of measures designed to restrict gun access in Pittsburgh. The ordinances, which passed in April, were immediately challenged in court. Pennsylvania law might not support the reformers’ side: The state has substantially limited municipalities from passing restrictions on legal firearms. In other places in the state, gun-rights supporters have regularly filed lawsuits challenging these kinds of regulations; appellate courts have repeatedly ruled against the localities that have tried to institute them, although the state supreme court has yet to meaningfully weigh in. And so far, progress at the state and federal levels has been slow. It is “really angering and frustrating that it’s almost a year, and we have no new laws to keep this from happening to anybody else,” Kellerman told me recently.

Dana Kellerman joins activists from Moms Demand Action during a rally at the Pennsylvania statehouse in Harrisburg.

The women are also fearful. Wider and Kellerman think a lot about the students in Parkland, Florida, who gained national attention when they called for gun control after 17 students and staff were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. These students provided inspiration, but also an object lesson: Speaking out against guns invites threats, harassment, and online intimidation.

The women are anxious about getting attacked online by trolls. They do not want to overstep and offend the shooting victims or their families, and they do not want to speak on behalf of Dor Hadash. Above all, their community is still dealing with trauma. “We are not victims here,” Wider told me this winter. “But I personally am struggling with sleep. I am upset.” Ban, Wider, and Kellerman were not inside the Tree of Life building when the shooting took place, but like other members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, they feel a responsibility to act to prevent future massacres. “For some reason, the world wants to pay attention to us and this tragedy more than a lot of other tragedies that unfold hourly and daily,” Wider said. “I am deeply sad about what happened. I am trying to make change as a result of that.”

And yet, Pittsburgh is not just another entry on a grim list of shooting sites. Members of the Jewish community here seem to generally support efforts to limit access to guns, but “to turn what happened in Pittsburgh into only that would be a problem,” says Harry Hochheiser, a member of Dor Hadash. “What happened here was qualitatively different. It’s not like Parkland. It’s not like Thousand Oaks … The intent makes a world of difference.” The Pittsburgh shooting stands apart as America’s deadliest attack on Jews.

Even the most ardently activist Jews in Squirrel Hill hesitate to say it out loud: Judah Samet got used. The 81-year-old Holocaust survivor was featured in national headlines after the shooting because of his narrow miss at the synagogue. He made the news again in February, during the State of the Union, as one of Trump’s invited guests. Memorably, the whole chamber sang “Happy Birthday” to him. “We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread its venomous creed,” Trump said. By attending the speech, Samet effectively acted as a representative of Pittsburgh, lending the president his credibility as a twice-over target of anti-Semitic violence.

Samet is proud to have played this role. Samet told me he was honored to attend the speech and represent Pittsburgh’s Jewish community; he knew exactly what he was doing when he accepted the invitation. “I’m a Republican. How could I say no?” he said. “I like President Trump … He’s the best president for Israel we’ve ever had.” His walls were covered with framed pictures of his family and lined with glass cases full of Judaica. Samet wears a large, colorful yarmulke; when he speaks, his eyes often crinkle in a smile behind his owlish, wire-frame glasses.

To say the least, Samet represents a small minority as a Trump supporter in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. But he embodies a long-standing and powerful Jewish impulse. He describes himself as a realist who sees the world as dangerous and wants Jews to be able to defend themselves, including with guns. He loves Judaism, and believes his recognition at the State of the Union honored the Jewish people. And he has lived through cycles of violence and conflict: He spent part of his childhood imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen, the German concentration camp, and he served in the Israeli army during the country’s infancy.

Many of the Jewish activists I spoke with in Pittsburgh said they didn’t bother watching the State of the Union—they had no interest in two hours of Trump. But the Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc put out a statement condemning the whole display. “Your constant denigration of migrants, refugees, people of color—along with your references to antisemitic conspiracy theories—directly incited” the violence at the Tree of Life synagogue, the activists wrote, addressing the president. Hochheiser, who helped write the statement, was bothered by Jewish support for Trump’s comments. “You don’t get to just throw all this crap about the caravan, and about refugees, and about Mexicans, and then say, ‘Well, I condemn anti-Semitism,’” he told me. “The idea that Jewish people would stand up and, essentially, give a pass to all of that is in my mind very troublesome.”

Samet calls this argument “BS.” “America has a tradition of accepting immigrants,” he said. So “why should they get preference? The ones that come from the south? To me, they’re infiltrators. That’s what they are: They come here, uninvited, against our policies, and God knows the people they bring with them—MS-13 and all of that.” He sees Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants as appropriately measured and specific.

In the days immediately following the attack, many elected officials and Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh spoke about the importance of welcoming immigrants and refugees to their city. As a whole, the community resolutely rejected the xenophobic hatred that seemed to have motivated Bowers. But a question of interpretation lingered. Some, such as Samet, view the shooting as a continuation of the violence that constantly follows Jews. A vocal minority of Jews in Pittsburgh, and in the United States at large, support the president precisely because they believe that Jews live with distinctive threats. They consider Trump an ally to Israel, whose existence is seen as the ultimate protection against anti-Semitic violence.

In Pittsburgh, as in America, these Jews stand across a divide from their progressive neighbors, whose views they cannot fathom—who see welcoming the stranger as a core element of their Judaism. The Tree of Life shooting poses a choice for Jews in America: Either hunker down and turn inward, or stand up, turn outward, and embrace others who are different but also targeted.

A young boy wears a yarmulke with the saying “Stronger Together” embroidered on the back at Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park.

Even now, the October attack feels ever-present in Squirrel Hill. Wider and Kellerman said they have regularly spent 12 to 14 hours a week on Squirrel Hill Stands; especially early on, Ban described it as a full-time job. Clergy and other communal leaders attend panel discussions and memorial events. The city welcomes endless visitors and people who hope to help. People are exhausted. They are still grieving.

Jews in America have long recognized the connection between nativism and anti-Semitism. HIAS was founded to resettle Jews who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. Later, the group expanded its mission and started helping immigrants from all over the world. Dor Hadash members mostly seem to share this spirit: the conviction that Judaism is as much about working for justice, on behalf of Jews and others, as it is about ritual and liturgy. For them, as for others in the community, the shooting only strengthened that belief.

But emotions are complicated, and this conviction is also tainted with fear. “There was a huge concern after the shooting about saying, ‘We, Dor Hadash, were the pro-HIAS group. He came because we were there,’” Judy Yanowitz said. “That puts the bull’s-eye on Dor Hadash again.” Her two teenage daughters joined us for our conversation. She seemed to care just as much about their activism, and their Jewish future, as she does about her own involvement in the community. People at Dor Hadash “feel more vulnerable now,” she said, “knowing that there’s these wackos out there that could be triggered at any moment.”

Squirrel Hill is still a quiet, peaceful neighborhood lined with trees and creaky, spacious houses. But especially to the Jews who live there, the shooting fundamentally changed the way they see their home.

There’s a section in Pirkei Avot, the compilation of Jewish ethical teachings, that describes the work of knowing and living out the words of the Torah. “The day is short and the work is much,” said the ancient sage Rabbi Tarfon. “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” After the attack on Pittsburgh, everyone in the community has been pulled into the work of figuring out what comes next. They’re moving forward together, in blindness, unsure of which story from Jewish history they are living.

* This article originally stated that Dana Kellerman has young children. In fact, she has one teenaged son.