Finding a Jewish home in a magical place
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Guest columnistWe are safe

Finding a Jewish home in a magical place

'Hearts are broken, but not the bonds that keep people here.'

Cindy Skrzycki

We are safe.

I posted those words to stem a tide of queries about what looked, to the outside world, like an invasion of armed military on a small residential community. Police, guns, stretchers, blood, the unknown of what was inside Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.

They were wondering if we were safe.

Squirrel Hill, my adopted community, was shown it is not safe from the world as it is now. We are an entry on the list of another place in America where guns entered our lives and caused carnage. Three blocks from where I live; across the street from the family who saw the horror unfold; and a heartbeat away from the people who live here.

Sixteen years ago, my family came to Pittsburgh and looked at the city neighborhoods, the suburbs. Bill Block Sr., then the patriarch of the family that owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, pulled us aside and said, “Live in the city.” He lived in Squirrel Hill; we live in Squirrel Hill. It was good advice.

Squirrel Hill had people on the streets all the time. Coming from Washington, D.C., where so much fear had already struck — envelopes stuffed full of anthrax, children locked down in schools and a sniper running wild on the streets — this felt safe. And it was.

It was magical to go to a place that reminded you of childhood. You could walk to everything: a movie, the drug store, the library, walk-up windows for ice cream, coffee shops, a bookstore, the bank, the grocery store, school. It’s a wonderful place for children and a dream for elders who can get to everything easily, especially the Jewish Community Center, where they can take an exercise class and then have a communal lunch.

Yes, magical.

Another revelation: the notion that people would actually stop what they were doing and go to temple for Shabbat. My professional life in Washington, D.C., like my husband’s professional life, had been filled with deadlines, with pressure, competition, travel and working with people who are the best journalists in the world. Who would even think about Shabbat? Only truly observant Jews who, for the most part, lived different lives.

Then, for the first time, we joined a temple. This was the time to join a temple.

I found there is a different world, one filled with sacredness on a Friday night, a Saturday morning. The prayers, beautiful. The life-cycle ceremonies, a picture of the generations. And the big houses of Squirrel Hill, many of them built for the rich men who owned the mills, the banks and the coke and coal — some are now small synagogues.

I am Catholic, but it doesn’t take long to be infused with Judaism here.

My younger daughter certainly was filled with it. She now has a firm date for rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College.

My older daughter works and lives on the other side of the country, but knows her roots, which were dropped first at Taylor Allderdice High School. Those roots grew into a career in music that never would have been possible without the community orchestras to play in and the musicians to mentor her. The Edgewood Symphony sign still sits in her room. I think of this place where my children’s lives really started.

When my mom died after five years at the Charles Morris Nursing Home, she had a Catholic burial in Buffalo but we came home and held a shiva of sorts for her. The house was filled with people who didn’t even know her. The rabbi appeared at the door and stepped in. I asked if I could get him anything to drink, eat. Jamie Gibson said: “I am here to serve you.” I didn’t even realize he was coming.

My mom didn’t know it, but she became a part of Jewish Squirrel Hill, too, as we went to Shabbat mornings services, waiting with other residents of the nursing home for a minyan to be made and the service to begin.

I don’t know any of the 11 victims or the injured, but it didn’t take long to find people who did.

Some of these fallen temple members, no doubt, had a part in building and caring for the synagogues and the life we all have now in Squirrel Hill. Hearts are broken, but not the bonds that keep people here. All kinds of people. All kinds of religions.

It is a sort of magical place. PJC

Cindy Skrzycki is a former Washington Post reporter who is now a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches journalism and nonfiction writing.

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