Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood

Image of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood
Release Date: 
October 5, 2021
Reviewed by: 

“So many individuals and groups from throughout the United States came to rest, like a magnet attracted to steel, into the aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh – just to pay their respects to the residents of Squirrel Hill, Jew and Gentile alike.”

On October 27, 2018, a violently anti-Semitic assassin burst into the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered 11 Jews as they were worshipping during the Sabbath service. Since the structure was shared with two other synagogues, the gunman found Jews in other parts of the building, shooting virtually everyone that he discovered. Beyond the 11 dead, others were forever wounded, physically and emotionally.

While we’ve seen other house of worship mass shootings in America, this one will be long remembered for two characteristics. First, this was the most egregious attack upon Jews in American history. Second, the immense outpouring of care and love from the community in which it took place, and from beyond, seems unmatched.

Squirrel Hill is the name of an East Pittsburgh neighborhood (not a suburb) with one of the largest and oldest Jewish populations in America. Many of the residents of Squirrel Hill count themselves among a long lineage whose family presence there can be traced back over decades, if not centuries. In addition to the many retail businesses in the neighborhood, there are a number of longtime non-profit organizations, including the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh, and the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition.

Into this large neighborhood comprised of so many caring families, a single well-armed white supremacist arrived on a cold October morning. His goal was to murder as many Jews as possible in an effort to satisfy the hatred spewing from his many dark web social media contacts. Into this peaceful neighborhood he poured out the contents of his foul anti-Semitism, creating a bloody attack that not only destroyed the lives of Jewish families, but changed the entire Squirrel Hill neighborhood forever.

The attacker’s violent mind was already compromised by anti-Semitic tropes witnessed on social media. His became a mission of bloody revenge upon innocent people that he had never met and knew nothing about—while they were praying. It was an attack upon a neighborhood that would deeply support the victims and their families. Rather than provoking anger and retribution from the gentle residents of Squirrel Hill, his violence resulted in a huge outpouring of love and support for his victims. As with countless attacks against Jews over centuries, the Jews of Squirrel Hill refused to lower themselves to the sordid level of their attacker.

It’s impossible not to be impressed with the scope and depth of author Oppenheimer’s research. He interviewed hundreds of residents, while being careful not to invade the privacy of victims and their families, some of whom simply desired to mourn privately in their homes.

Simultaneously, Oppenheimer conveys the passion, resiliency, and robust vitality of Squirrel Hill as a vivid expression of thriving Judaism in America within a mixed neighborhood of tolerance and peace. He recounts the wonderful contributions of the Gentile population of Squirrel Hill. So significant is his research that the index, epilogue, and notes sections comprise a significant portion of this excellent book.

Oppenheimer interviewed an incredible cross section of Squirrel Hill, including the young and the old, Jews and Gentiles, residents and visitors, survivors and witnesses. Into the dark, profound despair of a mass murder, residents of Squirrel Hill responded with love, kindness, caring, and vivacity.

Seldom in our increasingly polarized society has there been such a demonstration of love and brotherhood that transcends politics. As with 9/11, a large group of Americans suffered with the victims, coming together in grief, sadness, and caring thoughts.

Oppenheimer also tells us about some Gentile groups and individuals who flocked into Pittsburgh to grieve with the Jewish community. One gentleman travels the United States in his truck, placing crosses next to mass shooting events. He searches out violent expressions of hostility toward innocent Americans. In this case, he had to fabricate a Star of David for the first time.

So many individuals and groups from throughout the United States came to rest, like a magnet attracted to steel, into the aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh—just to pay their respects to the residents of Squirrel Hill —Jew and Gentile alike. Within Pittsburgh, numerous efforts were made by various facets of the community, including the city’s sports franchises, the University of Pittsburgh, and the local high school, to honor those who were murdered because of their religion.

Non-fiction books about a tragedy are never easy to write. Readers know what happened. There can be no surprise conclusion. Veracity stands upon the obvious. The author of this type of book must be very careful not to embellish tragic events into something glorious or exciting to read. Oppenheimer has accomplished this very well. His matter-of-fact descriptions and interviews enable the reader to swiftly comprehend the event from all perspectives.

The forensic data here is plentiful. What stands above all else is the incredibly resilient fabric of Squirrel Hill and the power of this neighborhood to care for its victims and to overcome adversity with compassion and sympathy. Within these pages, based upon extensive interviews and investigations, we discover enough new detail about the people and places of the event to help us gain a better perspective of what happened during and for some time after the horrific event.

Here, author Oppenheimer maintains a solid, data-driven approach. He has very successfully walked the fine line that separates explanation from embellishment. He has given us an outstanding overview of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting from every important reference point. The only notable absence in this book is the name of the shooter. It appears only once, briefly, and not again in the manuscript. Nor will it appear in this review. He doesn’t deserve recognition of any kind.

There were many heroes of this dreadful event, none of them being the shooter or his intolerant, white-supremacist colleagues. Such villains seek positive media attention by attacking the innocent: Jews, immigrants, minorities, and children. Oppenheimer rightly refuses to allow any small measure of fame to the shooter. Instead, Oppenheimer delivers a magnificent, well-researched and well-written recounting of the worst attack upon Jews in the history of the United States of America.

There has always been anti-Semitism in America. It was brought here primarily by social usurpers from Europe. American anti-Semitism has experienced many ebbs and flows, often at the vagaries of celebrity anti-Semites like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Louis Farrakhan. Yet only in recent years have Jews felt unsafe praying or displaying their religion in public. In a time when we should all be more mature, more accepting of others, more tolerant and open to people who are in any way different, the opposite has occurred. And the Tree of Life shooting is a reflection of that wicked transformation.