Community support necessary to recover


Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor

A vigil attendee lights two other attendees’ candles during the Saturday night vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting victims.

By Ana Altchek, Staff Columnist

This past Saturday, 11 people were murdered during morning services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a highly populated Jewish area in Pittsburgh. Six others were severely injured in the attack.  

But despite the horrific anti-Semitic attack on the community, I do not feel like my pride or openness in being Jewish has changed in any way. Surrounded by friends and family, Jew and Gentile alike, I felt supported, secure and proud of my faith in a time that threatens our stability.

I grew up in the progressive and diverse town of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where there was never a major Jewish community, and I always felt like my religious practices were slightly hindered by this lack of Jewish connection.

But the inclusive environment of Pitt has allowed me to become more active in the community than I have ever been before. And despite the relatively small Jewish population, I always feel encouraged and comfortable partaking in as many Jewish activities as possible.

As a sophomore at Pitt, I currently have an internship at Hillel. I also take a class at the Chabad House about Jewish values, and I am a frequent attendee of Friday night Shabbat dinners.

Whereas other hate-motivated crimes may leave a community fearful to continue their practices, this one did not make me feel any less secure to be a Jew in Pittsburgh.

“What happened yesterday will not break us … it will not ruin us,” Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of New Light Congregation said Sunday night at a vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. “We will continue … to sing and worship and learn together.”

Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor
Several hundred people gathered at the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues Saturday evening for a vigil that paid tribute to the victims of the Saturday morning shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

As soon as the tragedy occurred, I received a plethora of phone calls and messages from friends and family despite my distance from the attack. Not only did friends contact me, but they were by my side at the vigil at Soldiers and Sailors to convey their compassion and empathy.

But what truly stuck out to me was that everyone, not just Jewish people, spoke out against the shooting. The appearance of thousands of people at the vigil Sunday night at the Soldiers and Sailors auditorium — including the hundreds who could not fit inside and opted to instead stand outside in the pouring rain — is a compelling example of the kind of support and reassurance victims and Jews felt from the Pittsburgh community.

Not only did thousands attend the vigil, but multiple representatives of different religious communities expressed their solidarity with the Jewish community.

“We want to know what you need … the Muslim community will be there,” Wasi Mohamed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said at the vigil Sunday night.

Just in the last day, the Muslim community raised more than $100,000 for the victims of the shooting through a crowdfunding campaign, and the total continued to grow through the night.

While I cannot begin to imagine the trauma of someone who experienced the event firsthand, I am grateful to say that I do not feel threatened to continue living my life as a Jew the same way I have been since I began school here. This is very much a result of the climate here. While there is not an overwhelming number of Jews at Pitt, there is an exceedingly strong sense of inclusiveness and respect for other cultures.

When an event like this happens, reaching out to victims is a main priority. However, reassuring friends and neighbors that they are accepted is an equally essential task. I was grateful for the outpouring of love and support from fellow friends — whether it was a text, a call or a post on social media condemning the mass murder.

Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor
Two mourners embrace in the crowded intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues during a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.

Because of my peers’ compassionate response to this event, I feel confident that the murderer was an isolated individual who does not represent the Pittsburgh community.

Rather than demoralize the Jewish population and revoke their feelings of security in practicing their religion, they have once again shown exceptional resilience — and the Pittsburgh community has exemplified commendable unity.

It is in bleak times like this that members of the community need to be proactive instead of reactive in order to bring comfort and safety to their fellow neighbors, and to prevent acts of violence like this from occurring in the future.

As a young woman at Pitt, I am proud to associate myself so strongly with the Jewish community, and I plan on continuing to do so with the support of my peers and Pittsburgh citizens by my side.