Detroiters react to shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation.
Stacy Gittleman/JN Contributing Writer
Throughout the Detroit Metro area, Jews turned to social media to check on their friends and loved ones as they learned of the devastating news of the mass shooting Saturday, Oct. 27, at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. While some waited until after sundown, others who do not normally use electronics on Shabbat tuned in to the shocking news of the shooting.
Many in the area, who themselves were in services on Shabbat morning, pondered their own family ties to Pittsburgh and the safety and security of Detroit’s temples and synagogues.
About 27 worshippers gathered at Congregation Shaarey Zedek Sunday for Shacharit services. Rabbi Aaron Starr told them to pay special attention to prayers in the siddur for healing, comfort and peace, and that they should make a special point to thank and shake the hand of the congregation’s security guard before they left the building.
Starr told congregants his emotions fluctuated between sadness and rage since hearing the news of the shootings.
“We are all in mourning now,” Starr said. “There are times like this when we feel that God is hiding His face from us. But, in reality, it is these times that God is giving us the space we need to stand up and act.”
The best way to act, he continued, is to remain committed to congregational life.
“There are going to be people who will say, ‘Let’s not go to shul because they hate us,’ or ‘Let’s not be Jewish because people hate us,’” Starr said. “The moment we stop going to synagogue or conceal our Jewishness is the moment the terrorists win. Your presence here this morning is a message to the anti-Semites around the world: You may have won by taking precious lives away from us yesterday, but you will not win tomorrow.”
“I’m not going to let what happened in Pittsburgh stop me from going to temple. I won’t let fear take over my life and choices.”
— Brenda Strausz, Southfield, Temple Emanu-El member
After services on Saturday, Sam Arnold, 17, of Farmington Hills said he spent a great deal of time on social media checking to see if the Pittsburgh friends he made through Camp Ramah, USY and during a summer program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City were OK.
“A friend who lived in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood wrote to me that when she heard about the shooting, she wanted to rush to the synagogue, stand outside of it, wrap herself in a tallit and recite the Tehillim (Psalms of David),” Arnold said. “That is what we all need to do now at a time like this. Recite the Tehillim to increase goodness and joy in this world. We must stay connected to synagogue life; we cannot let the haters win and we cannot be quiet.”
The shooting, in which suspect Robert Bowers allegedly murdered 11 Jews as they celebrated Shabbat, occurred in a year that saw a spike in anti-Semitism in this city. In an article from September, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle said since January 2018, more than 50 incidents of anti-Semitism, mostly occurring in the Squirrel Hill and adjacent Shadyside neighborhoods, had been reported.
Mark Jacobs, Farmington Hills: On Sunday, Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit held a unity service in solidarity with the Jewish community. Pastor Kenneth James Flowers told the crowd, “We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters and commit our undying love for them at this difficult hour. Their struggle is our struggle, and we always keep them in our prayers.”
According to the 2017 population study of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, there are nearly 50,000 Jewish adults and children in nearly 27,000 households. In Greater Pittsburgh, Jews constitute a little more than 2 percent of the area population.
“While I know that any Jewish community would pull together after such a tragedy, it’s hard to explain how interrelated the community already is,” said native Detroiter Rabbi Avi Friedman, who served at Tree of Life for six years, both as assistant rabbi and rabbi.
“As Detroiters, we’re used to things being spread out. We think nothing of driving from Oak Park to Walled Lake. In Pittsburgh, everything is condensed,” he said. “Squirrel Hill is exactly like the Detroit my parents remember. Tree of Life is just down the street from another Conservative congregation and around the corner from the JCC. Orthodox and Reform congregations are not much further away. I’m certain that the community will help Tree of Life recover and heal.”
Friedman knew four of those who were killed in the shooting.
“A rabbi never stops being a rabbi to a community,” said Friedman, now rabbi at Congregation Ohr Shalom-the Summit Jewish Community Center in Summit, N.J.
Gail Caplan, West Bloomfield, Temple Israel member: “I feel very safe at temple. There is always a guard. What happened can’t stop us from living our lives normally. It makes me even more determined to go to temple. With the increase in anti-Semitism, I’m very concerned about the future of my grandchildren.”
Many Detroiters have strong bonds or even family roots in Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish neighborhoods.
Lowell Schmeltz of West Bloomfield grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon and lived in Squirrel Hill for three years during medical school. He spoke of his own memories of attending USY events and Hebrew high school at Tree of Life and the strong bond between Pittsburgh and Detroit’s Jewish communities due, in part, because of youth group programming such as USY and Camp Ramah in Canada.
“Because of Camp Ramah in Canada, many of our Detroit-area children have been influenced and educated by Pittsburgh rabbis such as Rabbi Chuck Diamond, who spends his summers up at Ramah,” Schmeltz said. “There is a tremendous connection between Pittsburgh and Detroit kids as well as their families. And, ironically, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun, who I was friends with through USY and Hebrew high school at Tree of Life, is now is a rabbi in Aventura, Fla., where the pipe bomber who was sending bombs to the Obamas and the Clintons was apprehended.”
Rebecca Starr, parent ambassador for Camp Ramah in Canada, was attending a previously planned Camp Ramah open house event in the Detroit area with the camp’s associate director, Aviva Millstone, on Sunday afternoon.
A former Camp Ramah camper herself, Rebecca spent the first moments after Shabbat checking on her Pittsburgh friends.
“My first thoughts were of one of my Ramah friends from Pittsburgh and his family, and I wanted to make sure they were OK,” she said. “We’ve been friends for more than 25 years.”
“I think we’re all frightened. My family is especially frightened because our niece, Jill Millstone, lives a block and a half from Tree of Life synagogue. Probably the only reason she wasn’t outside at the time [of the shooting] was that her daughter was sick and she was taking her to the doctor. I think Temple Israel does everything it possibly can. There is a guard there all the time. But, if someone wants to get to you, he will get to you.”
— Jackie Michaelson, West Bloomfield, Temple Israel member
Trying To Cope
Suzan Kass Tepman, a school social worker from West Bloomfield, said when explaining traumatic events such as this to young children it is about controlling the narrative of what they hear and helping them “make sense of the senseless.”
Tepman, together with her husband, explained the attack to their 8-year-old daughter. They said they would rather she hear it from them than from other sources.
The Tepmans belong to Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, where they were grateful that Executive Director Alan Yost and members of the congregation’s clergy were on hand to greet students at the door as Hebrew school got under way on Sunday morning.
Elsewhere, Steve Freedman, the head of school at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, sent a letter to all families to discuss ways to offer compassion and empathy as a response to darkness in the world. The school psychologist prepared and sent out support materials for teachers and parents. The psychologist and school rabbi will meet with grades 5-7 and 7-9 as part of morning prayers to put events in a “Jewish perspective.”
Julie Rosenbaum of Novi, who lived in Pittsburgh and worked at the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, said her friends there are “just trying to cope and process like we all are.”
“Many people I know live within blocks of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha and heard the commotion,” Rosenbaum said. “Friends are grieving and are trying to best explain to their children. During the time I worked at the federation there, I came to understand their strong connection to and communication with law enforcement and their even stronger leadership in working with the entire Jewish community to train organizations and other leaders as best they could to stay as safe as possible.”
Her family was most recently in Pittsburgh to celebrate a wedding of relatives who had been members of Tree of Life for generations. They were there the entire week of Sukkot.
“It was during this holiday that you truly could appreciate the warmth of Jewish Pittsburgh,” Rosenbaum said. “The week was full of sharing meals in communal spaces and being open to and inviting in strangers — regardless of difference. All I can hope is that we continue to live those values and rebuild with love and not hate.”
Contributing Writer Shelli Dorfman and Senior Arts Consultant Gail Zimmerman contributed to this story.