How the Gaza war tore apart the Jewish community hit by deadliest US anti-Semitic attack

Conflict raging in Middle East has fractured Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, which almost six years ago united in grief over mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue

War in Gaza divides Jews in city hit by anti-Semitic mass shooting

War in Gaza divides Jews in city hit by anti-Semitic mass shooting
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The grounds at this Jewish centre are falling into disrepair.

Untrimmed weeds sprout from a brick walkway, while panels that have collapsed inside the adjoining building expose dark holes in its ceiling.

The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, home to many of the US city’s Jewish residents, has not been used in more than five years.

A large section of the complex, which was previously home to three Jewish congregations, has been demolished, while a metallic fence stands tall around its perimeter.

“I have a lot of happy memories here,” Julie Paris tells The National as she assesses a memorial outside what is left of the synagogue.

Ms Paris is a long-time resident of Squirrel Hill and a recognisable face as she walks the area’s leafy streets, with neighbours stopping her to say hello. She is also Mid-Atlantic regional director of the Israel education organisation StandWithUs.

“I grew up going here, I had my bat mitzvah here … it played a central role in my personal Jewish identity.”

Artwork and messages of hope are displayed outside, paying tribute to the victims of the horrific event that occurred here.

On October 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire on worshippers during Shabbat morning services, killing 11 and wounding six, including several Holocaust survivors.

It was the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in US history.

The gunman, Robert Bowers, claimed he just wanted to kill Jews. He has since been sentenced to death.

“It forever changed not just the Jewish community, but the city of Pittsburgh”, Ms Paris says. “It rocked us to our core.”

While the synagogue has sat empty for the years, a reimagining of the space is under way. Most of the structure has been removed and a new building will be erected with spaces for worship, a museum and education centre, and a cinema.

Renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed Jewish museums in Berlin and Copenhagen and was the man behind the memorial for New York’s World Trade Centre, will develop the new 45,000-square-foot complex.

In the days following the attack, Squirrel Hill was united in grief.

There was an outpouring of sympathy from people across the US and overseas. In Jerusalem, a projection on an Old City wall honoured the victims.

“The way Pittsburgh came together to support us was heartwarming and gave us a lot of hope for what the future could hold … the Jewish community felt loved,” Ms Paris says.

“It brought people together from all backgrounds, all races, religions, ethnicities and political affiliations."

But ever since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the months of war that have followed in Gaza, the mood in Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh has changed.

The strong sense of unity has been replaced with anxiety, division and questions about the very existence of a Jewish homeland.

'Everybody has to make a decision'

Not far from Squirrel Hill is a 42-storey Gothic-style skyscraper overlooking the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

At more than 160 metres in height, the Cathedral of Learning is one of the tallest university buildings in the world.

In its shadows, mathematics teacher Alexandra Weiner grabs a falafel wrap from a Palestinian food vendor at the university’s Schenley Plaza.

She tells The National the area has been a meeting point for many of the pro-Palestine rallies that have taken place in Pittsburgh since the war in Gaza broke out.

“We have been speaking at protests, running events and holding vigils,” she says.

Protests here are often led by Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish anti-Zionist group that has allied itself with the Palestinian cause and been a vocal challenger of those backing Israel in the US.

They have held demonstrations across the country, shutting down New York’s Statue of Liberty and occupying the Canon House Building next to the US Capitol in Washington.

In Pittsburgh, a team of activists unfurled a huge banner from the city’s historic, 19th century-built Smithfield Street Bridge that read: "Your taxes killed 22,000 people in Gaza - Stop the genocide."

Ms Weiner, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, is a proud supporter of the group.

She and her family were part of the city’s Or L’Simcha Congregation, which merged with Tree of Life in the early 2010s.

“We would come to Squirrel Hill three of four times a week to go to synagogue, I went to the Hebrew school, I would help read Saturday services and Torah … my family was very involved,” she says.

Ms Weiner has happy memories from her time there.

She pauses for a moment before recalling Cecil and David Rosenthal, two brothers who were killed in the mass shooting.

“You would walk in and they always had a smile on their face … they were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”

She was also close with Joyce Feinberg, another victim of the attack, who comforted Ms Weiner when her mother passed away.

But supporting Israel was also an integral part of living in the community. Ms Weiner was involved with youth exchange programmes between Israeli and American students and also attended classes taught by Israeli teachers.

“The history lessons in particular were a very skewed view of the region,” she says. “There was almost no mention of the Nakba and the time around 1948 was portrayed as an independence struggle for Jewish Israelis.”

Ms Weiner began to think differently about Israel after living there for two years, where she met Palestinians and saw the border wall in the occupied West Bank - something she found particularly moving.

But it was hearing from Israeli settlers that shifted her views the most.

“You realise that there is something core and inherent to Zionism … that it is a colonial project,” she says.

“Everyone has to make a decision at some point and I made the decision that my commitment to justice is stronger than the connection to Israel that I had grown up with.”

Since October 7, she has watched with horror as the war has unfolded in Gaza.

“I see clips of parents mourning their children, I see clips of children crying for their families, I see horrible things.” she says.

“We could have predicted this six months ago … we knew this would be the outcome and nothing was done to stop it.”

The gulf between her opinions on Israel and that of the community in which she grew up has been hard on Ms Weiner. She struggles to go to Tree of Life, which is temporarily operating from a new building, due to its Zionist ideology.

“There were Israeli flags [there], there were prayers for the Israeli soldiers being said … I don’t want to pray for soldiers.”

In a visibly difficult moment, Ms Weiner admits she no longer speaks to family members who live in the occupied West Bank, as well as peers she used to know from her synagogue.

“We just don’t talk,” she says.

The National reached out to the Tree of Life synagogue for this story, but they chose not to comment.

'Something missing'

A couple of kilometres away from the Tree of Life synagogue, a sombre vigil calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas is under way.

According to Israel, more than 250 hostages were taken by Palestinian militants during the October 7 attack, many of whom remain unaccounted for.

A sea of Israeli and American flags fly at the intersection of Murray Avenue and Darlington Road, near kosher supermarkets and the Jewish Community Centre of Pittsburgh.

The face of Kfir Bibas, a nine-month old baby who was kidnapped with his mother and brother, is plastered on to a utility pole overlooking the dozens of people gathered.

They stand for the Israeli and American national anthems before a roster of speakers address the crowd, one of whom is a nurse that recently volunteered with injured Israeli soldiers near the Gaza border.

The vigil has been held on this corner almost every Sunday since the war broke out. Ms Paris attends regularly.

She was deeply affected by the October 7 attack, waking up that morning to red alert notifications on her phone warning of hundreds of rockets being launched against Israel.

Watching the scenes unfold on television, she recalls telling her husband that their world had changed forever.

“We will never be the same,” she says. “Six months to the day, we are still reliving that nightmare.”

But she also felt like something was missing in the days following the assault that shocked the world.

Outside of the Jewish community, Ms Paris says, there wasn’t a sense of support like she had encountered after the Tree of Life shooting.

“Many of the same organisations that marched with the Jewish community were nowhere to be found … worst case, some of those organisations were celebrating Hamas’s attacks,” she says.

Ms Paris refers to parachute symbols which were shared online following October 7, an apparent reference to the Hamas fighters who flew into Israel that morning using motor-powered paragliding equipment.

She states that the community largely supports Israel as well as its continuing efforts to dismantle Hamas in Gaza and free the hostages.

“The lengths and the depths Israelis have to go to explain why they have a right to defend themselves is really unnerving,” she says.

“If you cannot condemn terrorism … then we know we are in a crisis.”

Boiling point

Much of the tension that had been building over the war in Gaza came to a boil during a raucous meeting at Allegheny County Council, the legislative branch of the county government which includes Pittsburgh.

Council members were debating a motion on March 5 that supported a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. It would have called on Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to urge the White House to seek an end to the conflict.

Almost 300 people signed up to speak at the meeting, which lasted for several hours.

“No solution that pits Jews against any other group will keep us well,” says Allie Levin, a Jewish resident of Squirrel Hill and member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

“White supremacy is the root cause of everything that endangers us, we share this enemy with our Palestinian and Arab peers and their humanity means our safety … I call for a ceasefire now.”

Ms Paris also spoke at the meeting, which she described as hostile, urging the council to vote no on the motion.

“This resolution is not about helping victims of war, but a debate of whether or not Israel has a right to exist,” she says.

Even Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue, who narrowly escaped death during the mass shooting in 2018, made a speech that evening.

“We’ve got 446 bridges in Pittsburgh … you didn’t build bridges, you’ve divided a community,” he told council members who brought the ceasefire motion to a vote.

“This is not the place to discuss this issue. They’re doing it in Paris, that’s where the discussion belongs. Ceasefires have been put on the table, Hamas has rejected them.”

Unlike several other councils across the US that passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire, such as the cities of Chicago and Detroit, council members in Allegheny County voted against the motion 9-3.

“I know the difference between good and evil,” Samuel DeMarco III, a council representative who voted against the resolution, tells The National.

“I stand with Israel … nothing that was said could have changed my mind.”

But council representative Bethany Hallam, who co-sponsored the motion and refers to Israel’s actions in Gaza as a "genocide", says there was overwhelming public support for it.

She points to a resolution the council unanimously passed in the wake of the October 7 attack, which condemned Hamas.

“Once we did that … and after months of tens of thousands of Palestinians getting killed, we knew that we had to say something,” she tells The National.

“We were calling for a ceasefire on both sides … the people who spoke out against the resolution were overwhelmingly from Squirrel Hill, all the people that spoke out in favour were from all over Allegheny County, from all different backgrounds.”

Ms Paris decried ceasefire debates under way across US municipalities and blamed them for "pouring fuel on the fire at a time of rising anti-Semitic incidents".

She shares images and videos of attacks on homes and businesses in Squirrel Hill that have shown their support to Israel with signs and flags.

One records a person ripping down a placard and smashing windows, while another shows graffiti painted over posters drawing attention to hostages held by Hamas.

“This kind of rhetoric makes us less safe,” she says.

But Ms Weiner, who watched the council session online, said Jewish leaders should not speak on behalf of her and that Jewish Pittsburgh is not a political monolith.

"Despite all of the talk about how we have to build bridges, they don't want to build bridges in their own community," she says.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 3:13 PM