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Reflections on Pittsburgh

One of my oldest and most vibrant memories is walking through the streets of Squirrel Hill with my family on a warm summer morning. I remember taking scraps of old cardboard from behind my grandparents’ house and driving to Frick Park, where we would line up to race down the blue slide. I remember walking down the wide streets and past the orderly brick houses, stopping outside of our father’s childhood home. I remember heading back to my grandparents’ place in the suburbs and passing the Tree of Life synagogue as we drove through the hilly streets.

My mother, who was sitting in the front, turned around in her seat to face her children.

“That’s where I was Bat Mitzvahed,” she said, pointing at the tall gray building, the slits of stained glass windows glinting in the sun. I sensed the pride in her eyes, felt the connection to hometown and faith that would endure no matter how far away she lived. My younger sisters and I had spent our entire lives in northern California, but that car ride was the first time I understood that thanks to our parents, Pittsburgh was our family’s town, and Squirrel Hill was our family’s Jewish community too.

I have been thinking about this — the nature of my relationship to a city and its Jewish community — a lot in the three days since a gunman walked into that very same synagogue and murdered 11 innocent people. As tragedies tend to do, the shooting made me especially aware of how strong my ties are to a city thousands of miles away and how strong my ties are to a religion that I have often failed to embrace.

I thought about this when I immediately called my grandmother to make sure she was safe, knowing that she would have been attending services at a different synagogue just blocks away. I thought about it as I watched news reports full of images of the buildings and parks and houses that have made Pittsburgh something like a second home.

Sunday’s attack shook me because it hit both of the communities to which, in many ways, I owe much of who I am — Pittsburgh and the Jewish people. Like millions of Jews and official or unofficial Pittsburghers around the world, I still don’t know how to process it or how to cope with such a senseless attack.

As an unofficial Pittsburgher, my heart breaks for a city full of good people and tight-knit communities. Much has been written about Squirrel Hill in the days since the attack, but some if its most defining qualities — resilience, togetherness, openness — are most apparent when you walk its streets and meet its people. I didn’t need to see the text from my parents on Sunday morning to know that my family knew of many of the people killed on Saturday. They had been to services with them or seen them around town over the years.

As a Jewish person, my heart breaks because anti-Semitism continues to permeate our world. 11 people murdered as they prayed in their sanctuary — it’s difficult for me to comprehend that this type of hate can exist. Until Saturday, anti-Semitism was something shared through stories, conversations and history lessons. Now, it feels incredibly, painfully real, and standing up to it feels much more urgent.

But among the grief and confusion that has characterized the past few days, I have witnessed the unbreakable strength of both the Pittsburgh and the Jewish communities. On Sunday afternoon, I watched as hundreds of people from all parts of Stanford came together for a vigil for the Pittsburgh victims. People of different faiths, different ideologies, different relationships to Judaism and to the city. It was an inspiring sight that in the face of such hatred, the Jewish people were once again strong in their ability to unite and to overcome. With hundreds of people standing in solidarity, I felt proud to be on Stanford’s campus and to be a student here.

I heard about a similar type of strength on Sunday night when I spoke with my grandmother, who told me about the vigil at Taylor Allderdice High School, where thousands of Pittsburghers came together to mourn. And I heard about that strength just this morning when I read that over 100 Steelers players went to the funeral for the Rosenthal brothers, two of the victims of Saturday’s shooting.

Resiliency, steely toughness and an unbreakable sense of community are what make Pittsburgh such a special city, and as I witnessed these qualities shine through in the face of the worst kind of hatred, I realized that these are many of the same qualities that have defined Jewish people for generations.

My Pittsburgh and Jewish communities have felt intertwined since a single moment from my Bar Mitzvah over six years ago. My dad had ordered special yarmulkes for all of our family in attendance. The yarmulkes, traditional garments worn by Jewish people to cover their heads during services, were bright yellow and dotted with Steelers logos. In the most pivotal moment of my Jewish experience, I remember looking out over a sea of family and friends adorned with the unmistakable logo of Pittsburgh’s football team. I remember feeling not just a powerful connection to my faith but also a powerful connection to the city. Standing there, I began to understand and appreciate the overlap between my relationship to Pittsburgh and my relationship to Judaism. It is because of this overlap that Sunday’s attack is all the more painful. But it’s also because of this connection, and the strength of both Pittsburgh and the Jewish people, that I know both communities will rise above this hate and anger.

Contact Greg Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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