I was born in a place called Squirrel Hill.
It was then — and is now — the heart of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Squirrel Hill is an old part of town, known for its leafy streets and red brick homes — a welcoming place where on a Saturday morning you would see some Jewish families walking to Sabbath services while those less observant headed out to shop, run errands or play a little basketball in a neighborhood school yard.
My roots of faith are there. And while my memories have grown dim with time, as you might expect, I still remember strolling hand-in-hand down those streets as a toddler with my grandmother, stopping with Nana at the kosher bakery for a sugar cookie and a loaf of bread.
It was the most peaceful spot on earth… a neighborhood where as a child I always felt incredibly safe.
Now it is the site of the worst act of anti-Semitism in American history.
A man full of hate burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue as Sabbath morning services were getting underway, killing 11 people as they worshipped in a rampage so horrific, words escape me.
11 dead. The elders of the congregation… a husband and wife praying together… a vibrant 97-year-old woman named Rose who had seen so much in her lifetime… two brothers in their 50’s who always sat in the back of the sanctuary and greeted people as they came in.
We mourn them all. We cry. And we wonder why.
Why did another Pittsburgher, enraged by the way the Jewish community was stepping up to help immigrants and refugees, go on a shooting spree — telling police when it was all over that he wanted to kill Jews?
Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburbs, was little known to authorities before the massacre. But he was a presence on social media, using sites frequented by members of hate groups to promote conspiracy theories and stoke fears.
He was fixated on immigration — and the presence of a caravan of would-be refugees slowly making its way across Mexico to the United States. He knew Tree of Life was one of many Jewish congregations (including my own) that has long spoken out on behalf of those fleeing violence and persecution. It’s a condition many of our ancestors experienced first-hand.
Some of us, mistakenly, thought this would never happen in America — that this kind of virulent anti-Semitism would never find a foothold in this country.
We were wrong.
A report issued in February by the Anti-Defamation League — a Jewish organization that fights all forms of bigotry— detailed a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 compared to 2016.
What else happened in that time frame? The dawn of the Trump presidency.
Now, I am not saying Donald Trump is responsible for the massacre in Pittsburgh, or a series of package bombs that were intercepted just days earlier that were addressed to some of his critics.
What I am saying is with his rhetoric, President Trump has helped to create an atmosphere where such actions are possible.
He is in the business of stoking fear….and his strongest weapon is rage.
During an interview in 2016 with two veteran reporters for the Washington Post — Bob Woodward and Robert Costa — Trump admitted “I do bring rage out… I always have.”
Asked about those comments on CNN in light of the Pittsburgh shooting, Woodward said: “He is clearly proud of it.”
It is pure Trump. We still remember with gratitude — putting politics aside — how George W. Bush brought the nation together after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks…..or how Barack Obama brought tears to our eyes at the funerals for the worshippers gunned down at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
They proudly assumed the mantle of consoler-in-chief. Trump just can’t do it.
The president offered his condolences immediately after the Pittsburgh shooting, and a clearly scripted denunciation of anti-Semitism. Then he shifted gears. He said if there had been armed guards at Tree of Life perhaps no one would have been killed.
A few hours later, with the body count in Pittsburgh rising and the nation in shock, Trump went off to a campaign rally. The next day he was back on Twitter, going after one of the intended victims of those package bombs — liberal activist Tom Steyer, who just happens to be Jewish.
And then, just as the funerals in Pittsburgh were about to begin, came word that the president would be coming to pay his respects and visit with the survivors and their families. This, even though Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto had asked him to stay away until they had buried all the dead.
So where do we go from here?
We hold each other closer… we pray… and those of us in the Pittsburgh diaspora (and we are legion) join with our brothers and sisters in our hometown in a show of strength.
We are bigger than this. We respond to hate with love. We welcome the strangers to our gates, much as Abraham and Sarah in biblical times, welcomed them to their tent.
We try to drown out the voices of rage… and we remember the words, not of a political leader on the right or left, but of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers from Tree of Life.
In a blog posted on the congregation’s website just days before the massacre, he wrote that life is short, and we need to savor the joys and celebrations — what we Jews call “simcha”:
“None of us can say with certainty that there is always next year,” Rabbi Myers said, adding “This is our hope, our dream.”
Now we as a faith, a community and a nation mourn 11 lives well-lived.
As generations before us, we say of those who have physically left us but remain in our hearts:
“May their memory be a blessing.”