On a dreary fall weekend two years ago, just after Donald Trump’s improbable victory, I trekked to Pittsburgh for the first time. I was there to check out a graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University, a stone’s throw from the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that is so much in our minds these days. After enduring a nine-hour Greyhound bus ride from my Flatbush home (in a nod to my generation, I live-tweeted the horror of it!), I crashed on the couch of a non-Jewish friend whose backyard abutted an Orthodox synagogue.
And so began two days that would upend my provincial notions about a place like Pittsburgh, its rabbis and the lessons that the city teaches for all of us as we struggle to move on from what happened at the Tree of Life Congregation.
The synagogue I could see from my friend’s house seemed like the classic Modern Orthodox one – wooden paneling in the sanctuary and older Jews in the pews. The rabbi approached me after services and invited me to his home for Shabbat lunch. I made the two-mile trek from my friend’s house to Carnegie Mellon four times that weekend, shuttling between my two identities — observant Jew and grad student. On each trip, wet leaves underfoot, I passed by Tree of Life, wanting to walk in but not having the time. As an observant Jew I was compelled to attend services and eat three meals, and as a prospective grad student I needed me to be at most of the informational sessions, which were scheduled throughout the day. I couldn’t be late to the rabbi’s lunch, nor could I skip the campus meeting with the financial aid guy. (On a whiteboard, in big bold letters, prospective students were promised what their average first-year salary would be.)
What was it about Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh’s Jews, I wondered during those two-mile walks. Growing up as I did in Orthodox Brooklyn, a place like Pittsburgh — even though Squirrel Hill has a good-size Jewish population — was just different. It was simply “out of town,” like Saul Steinberg’s iconic New Yorker cover of an America that barely existed beyond the Hudson. On the streets where I grew up, there were almost too many of us — certainly enough to argue with or ignore altogether. We Jews didn’t need to meet the Jewish stranger because we had our own community, be it a JCC, a shul or the neighbors in our apartment building. We didn’t interact with people who observed differently or had a divergent pathway to God.
So for me, with all the Jewish baggage I lugged to Pittsburgh, the scene at the rabbi’s Modern Orthodox synagogue in Squirrel Hill was astonishing. In the fading light of a fall Shabbat, during the third meal, the rabbi had arranged for two of his colleagues — Reform and Reconstructionist leaders — to speak to the congregation about a recent interfaith trip to Israel. I had underestimated the Orthodox rabbi, believing that he hewed to a simple “love-Israel-or-leave-it” kind of Zionism. Yet, he invited the two other rabbis into his own synagogue to share differing views. They were not paid to be there, and it was not a media-grabbing event. (Indeed, the food left a little to be desired — cold leftovers to be exact — and there was even an awkward singalong with men whose pitch wavered.)
But in a spirit of what seemed like real pluralism, the three rabbis showed that there was a connection between them, in spite of their differing political and religious views; they shared time and space in a civil manner. And they seemed to be stand-ins for a wider Pittsburgh Jewish community that actually sought to transcend the artificial barriers of sect and denomination.
That spirit has been on full view in the days since the massacre at Tree of Life on that recent Shabbat morning. It was there at the vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall the day after the attack, when faith leaders of all stripes came together to mourn and begin the healing. It was there when girls from a local yeshiva gathered to recite Psalms at Tree of Life. And it was there at the “Stronger Together Shabbat” on the first Friday night after the tragedy, when Jews of all stripes shared a meal together under a large tent that suggested the biblical Abraham’s welcoming touch.
On that wet fall weekend two years ago, I learned why Pittsburgh’s Jews have a love affair with Squirrel Hill. Why people choose the city to raise Jewish families and communities with pride — because no matter who you are and what life you choose, the community always welcomes you with open arms. To heal after a tragedy like this one, we have to learn from the lesson of Pittsburgh. We can only grow if we find allies and build coalitions among our people.
It’s a lesson the Modern Orthodox rabbi who hosted me for two days already knew.