By Melissa W. Hunter
This past week marked the start of jury selection for the shooting that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. Not only did this hate crime specifically target the Jewish community, but it also happened on the same day as my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. At the exact moment my daughter was standing on the bima of our temple, reading from the Torah, horror was unfolding just one state over (in a synagogue very similar to our own). I was blissfully unaware of this as I gazed at my daughter with pride, surrounded by family and friends, feeling safe in the building that housed our congregation. It wasn’t until the Kiddush luncheon that I first read the headlines and felt my heart sink.
The following year, my daughter and I visited Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the shooting took place. The reason for our trip was one of joy. My daughter and her two friends were attending the Bat Mitzvah of another friend who lived in the Pittsburgh area. They had all met at Jewish overnight camp, and their reunion in the lobby of their friend’s temple was wonderful to see, full of laughter and hugs. We didn’t realize at the time that her friend lived just one street over from the Tree of Life Synagogue. As we stopped at a traffic light the first day of our visit, one of my daughter’s friends cried, “Look! There it is!” Right outside our window was the now-empty building with its wall of stained glass, surrounded by a large chain link fence. Hand-drawn pictures were posted to the links, and bouquets of flowers and candles crowded the sidewalk at the foot of the fence. All laughter ceased as we stared in disbelief, sharing an unspoken moment of silence.
As we drove away, I gazed at the tree-lined streets and stately homes with well-manicured lawns and couldn’t help but think, this could have happened in my town, in my neighborhood, in my synagogue. During the rest of our visit, I was aware of signs in every storefront and restaurant and coffee shop that read “Stronger than Hate.” Despite the shooting, there was a feeling of the community coming together out of grief to share a message of hope. When we visited again the following year, the signs were still there.
Now, nearly five years later, that message seems to have fallen on deaf ears throughout the country. Rather than being an isolated incident, the number of hate crimes against those of the Jewish faith seems to have increased. Today, a national commercial promoting unity against Jewish hate is being broadcast on air and posted online. I never thought I’d see this rise in antisemitism in my lifetime. I certainly never thought my own Jewish children would have to face it.
Now, whenever we attend temple, there is always a police officer standing at the entrance. Any event at our local Jewish community center is monitored by police. The idea that we need protection to worship the way we choose is unfathomable, yet it is a daily part of our lives.
Now, I read stories in the news about swastikas spray painted on synagogues, threads online that read “Hitler was right,” acts of vandalism on college campuses, and celebrities that spew hate across their social media platforms. While not on the same scale as the shooting, it is a constant reminder that antisemitism is alive and well in the United States.
As jury selection continues, I hope the community of Squirrel Hill finds a sense of peace and healing moving forward, and the message of unity that was so visible throughout the neighborhood becomes a unifying message for our country.