I fell in love with Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood even before someone told me that it was the real-life home of Mister Rogers. I relished the Old World charm of walking down cobblestone streets and savoured the New World multiculturalism of people and food from all over the globe. Most of all, it felt safe.
Pittsburgh was rated as the friendliest U.S. city when I lived there (1990-91), and I found Squirrel Hill especially welcoming. I also loved how a vibrant Jewish community seamlessly integrated into the overall community. At the time, the mayor of Pittsburgh was a Jewish grandmother who lived in the neighbourhood. There was a palpable sense of tolerance and acceptance: “I like you as you are.”
It felt more like home than home, if that makes any sense. I’ve often told people that Squirrel Hill is the best place I’ve ever lived, so it’s unfathomable to think that it’s where such a terrible hate crime has happened.
It’s extra painful and offensive that the shooting occurred during Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), regularly observed by many in that community. It was during my time in Squirrel Hill that I first truly appreciated this ancient practice.
No more safe havens
When my Orthodox Jewish friend Abby invited me over for lunch one Saturday, it felt strange that we couldn’t listen to his fantastic tape collection due to the prohibition against the use of electronics during the Sabbath. But as I joined his family in singing around the dining table, I came to understand the deep contentment provided by taking and anticipating a 24-hour timeout from the rest of the week, and the rest of the world.
It’s sickening to think about that time of reflection and restoration being shattered by bullets.
I was quite relieved when I learned that Abby and his wife, who live two blocks away from the Tree of Life Synagogue, were not on the list of victims. It turns out they were away in “incredibly safe and quiet Israel,” as Abby described Sunday in an email. (Sadly, I recall two of the victims, developmentally disabled brothers who were gentle souls and fixtures in the neighbourhood.)
Normally of course, the United States and Canada have been considered the safest of havens for the Jewish people. While there have long been threats posed by individuals and hate groups espousing anti-Semitic rhetoric, not to mention a history of quotas and other forms of discrimination, as of yet there has been no North American pogroms or anything like the stories of my great-grandfather having to hide in the cellar when the Cossacks came through town.
But now, thousands of miles away from Squirrel Hill and in a country with better gun laws, I feel unsafe in a way I haven’t since I was a small child.
I remember watching the Yom Kippur War unfold on live television. Seeing that Jews could be attacked on the holiest of days—a year after the Israeli team was massacred at the 1972 Munich Olympics—freaked me out. No time or place seemed safe from attack.
"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.'": #StrongerThanHate #Pittsburgh #TogetherAgainstAntisemitism
Eventually, those fears faded into the background. Maybe it was a belief that humankind was progressing, at least in my part of the world. Or maybe I was just fortunate to experience very little overt anti-Semitism growing up. Yet, I’ve never been able to shake the sense that my people might again someday have to pack our bags at a moment’s notice.
It came as no surprise
That sense has gotten stronger in the past few years.
Ignorance, intolerance and the desire to point the finger, including the trigger finger, all appear to be on the rise. So does the prominence of politicians who do things such as start a twitter war aimed at outing a popular comedian as a Jew. Not surprisingly, reported anti-Semitic incidents are way up in the U.S. and set another record last year in Canada.
In my personal life, there have been swastikas and anti-Semitic comments recently at my son’s school, as well as a revelation last week that a close friend believes in a global conspiracy of “international” bankers led by the Rothschilds. Plus, a Jewish friend living near Vancouver told me about a dinner party last year where the husband of his wife’s colleague casually commented that Hitler should have finished the job when he had a chance.
So, when you consider all this, not to mention the tragedies of Quebec City, Charleston, and Sutherland Springs, a premeditated mass shooting at a synagogue should have come as no surprise. That may be the scariest thing of all.
A need to share responsibility
I still can't believe that the mass murder of innocents occurred in, of all places, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
That was my favourite show growing up, and I enjoyed watching it years later with my son. There was something very comforting about the opening routine of Mister Rogers changing into a sweater and sneakers, a transition from work time into special time that was a bit like Shabbat. I particularly liked meeting his neighbours and the gentle way he had with them.
Unlike some of my friends, I never ran into Fred Rogers when I lived in Squirrel Hill, but I did get to meet him years later in San Francisco. We reminisced about the neighbourhood, and it was clear that he was the real deal. He genuinely celebrated each person’s self-worth and advocated for the concept of shared responsibility:
"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."
It’s heartbreaking to read about the 11 victims, how each in his or her own way was a hero. At least it has been heartening to hear about numerous multidenominational vigils in response to the shooting. It’s a good reminder that hate speech and hate crimes against any person must be seen as everyone’s problem.
I hope that this outpouring of support as well as their strong sense of community will help see the good people of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh through. As for the rest of us, I sure wish that Mister Rogers still aired, to help current and future generations understand what really matters:
"What matters isn't how a person's inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of a war or the description of a sunrise--his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge." (Fred Rogers)