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Opinion | David Shribman

After Tree of Life, this is the way we live now

Stars of David in front of the Tree of Life Synogogue in Pittsburgh two days after the October 2018 shooting displayed the names of those killed in a shooting there.
Stars of David in front of the Tree of Life Synogogue in Pittsburgh two days after the October 2018 shooting displayed the names of those killed in a shooting there. Matt Rourke/Associated Press/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH

There remains a hurt at the heart of this city.

A year ago Sunday, 11 men and women at prayer were gunned down in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. It was the most lethal act of anti-Semitism in American history, particularly poignant because this city was an unusual tabernacle of tolerance, a place where, a quarter-mile from the shooting, merchants and shoppers tell time by a clock tower with the hour numbers in Hebrew.

Today Tree of Life, a mere three blocks from my house, remains shuttered. A makeshift tribute, an outdoor shrine, stands in front of the building. Throughout Squirrel Hill — in the Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the few in the country certified as kosher, but also in Chinese restaurants and in the Starbucks and the banks — are posters carrying the iconic Steelers logo with a Star of David substituted for one of the three hypocycloids that appear on players’ helmets, daily reminders of a day which, here if not everywhere, will live in infamy.

The past year has been both dispiriting and uplifting. The dead were buried, the sanctuary scoured of even the last microscopic trace of blood. The president came, protesters shouted. Calls for gun control were issued, the pleas ignored. There have been forums on anti-Semitism, neighborhood discussions about hate crimes, broad resolve to affirm the welcome to religious minorities and immigrants that, for two centuries, spurred Pittsburgh’s growth into a manufacturing powerhouse that — here is the sad irony of the massacre at Tree of Life — forged the arms that defeated slavery in the Civil War and the slavery of Nazi Germany in World War II.

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SHRIBMAN IN 2018: Where so many prayed, and so many died

Here, in the arsenal of democracy — a phrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt used in a radio broadcast at the end of 1940 but an apt description of Pittsburgh’s steel and iron legacy — the gestures of cross-cultural outreach remain strong.

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Priests, rabbis, and imams remain brothers and sisters in arms, but that was the case before Tree of Life. Hardly a religious-affiliated tour group departs Pittsburgh International Airport without having both Rome and Jerusalem on the itinerary, but that also was the case before Tree of Life. Last year, as in many years before, David A. Zubik, the Bishop of Pittsburgh, paused in his Christmas Eve recessional after Midnight Mass to give a hug to Aaron Bisno, the rabbi at nearby Rodef Shalom Congregation, and one to my wife and me, a mixed-religion couple in the same pew, and to inquire after our daughter, only months from rabbinical ordination.

And last month, the congregants of Tree of Life gathered to mark Judaism’s High Holy Days. Their venue a year after the tragedy: Calvary Episcopal Church. It was the first time the call of the Shofar was heard amid those pews.

The front page of the PIttsburgh Post-Gazette published before the first Sabbath after the shooting.
The front page of the PIttsburgh Post-Gazette published before the first Sabbath after the shooting.

In the past year, many questions have been posed but few have been answered.

We do know that ours is a neighborhood and city that is determined to prove that the tragedy at Tree of Life was an aberration. We know, too, that there was real heroism that day — from first responders, from ambulance drivers and nurses and doctors and, especially, from Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, forever emblazoned in our minds in a remarkable image by Post-Gazette photographer Alexandra Wimley, the rabbi flanked by a police officer holding a revolver as he fled a sanctuary, transformed in a moment of horror into a crime scene. We know that the phrase ‘’never again,’’ ordinarily applied to the Holocaust, is on every set of lips here.

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The day the shots rang out this summer in Dayton and El Paso, Rabbi Myers told me that, for him, “never again’’ had been replaced by “yet again.’’

And for that reason, this much we do not know: What can be done to prevent these crimes? Why do they occur in the first place? How have the coarsening of the American conversation — the airing of rhetoric socially unacceptable only a generation ago — and the proliferation of social media contributed to mass shootings? What value are the post-shooting rites, the public demonstrations of resolve and remembrance?

Dayton and El Paso engaged this summer in what has become an American ritual: vigils, multi-faith services, moments of remembrance, pleas for an end to mass violence. We performed these rites here in Pittsburgh, as they did in Connecticut, where school children were gunned down, and in South Carolina, where parishioners of a black church were murdered, and in Florida, where a high school was riddled with bullets and defiled with blood.

So here is yet another question that has no answer: What good, besides perhaps momentarily salving the hurt of survivors, did any of this do?

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The shootings continue, a rat-tat-tat of events that is an echo of the shots fired from coast to coast. The result is a perverse combination of Donald Trump and Theodore Dreiser: American carnage, an American tragedy.

Late in August student survivors from the Parkland, Fla., shooting advanced a proposal that would, among other things, create a national licensing and gun registry, ban assault weapons, limit firearm purchases and establish a 21-year-old age limit for weapons purchases.

The very same day Tree of Life announced that Oct. 27 would not be called an “anniversary’’ but instead would be described as a “commemoration.” The schedule calls for Torah studies, a memorial service in the large Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, and acts of community service. All of these will be accompanied by increased security. Of course it will. It is, as the 19th-century English novelist Anthony Trollope would put it, the way we live now.


David Shribman, previously the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that earned the Pulitzer Prize.