Journalist Mark Oppenheimer’s new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of Neighborhood,” debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s Sociology of Urban Areas charts.
The book, about the massacre at the Tree of Life building and its aftermath, was published only a few weeks before the third commemoration of the deadliest antisemitic incident in the United States, which occurred on Oct. 27, 2018.
To do his research, the author visited Pittsburgh more than 30 times and interviewed more than 250 people, including many survivors of the attack and Squirrel Hill residents.
Danielle Kranjec was one of those Oppenheimer interviewed. Kranjec, now director of campus initiatives for Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, was then enmeshed in local campus life and nearing the end of her eight years as the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh when she spoke to the author.
Kranjec said Oppenheimer heard her speak at a 2019 Tisha B’ Av observance at Congregation Beth Shalom, where she recounted a story about some of her students and their work with a group called Challah for Hunger. The organization hosted an event shortly after the massacre dubbed “Braiding Together Against Hate.”
In subsequent interviews, Kranjec retold the story to Oppenheimer and spoke about the University of Pittsburgh’s reaction to the massacre. Her recollections comprise a large portion of the chapter titled “The Symbols,” and her continued feelings of anxiety are included in a separate section of the book.
“I really recognized myself,” Kranjec said about Oppenheimer’s portrayal of her. “I recognize the experience of my students on campus. I think he did a very good job.”
Reading the book, she said, was “healing.”
Barry Werber, a member of New Light Congregation, is a survivor of the shooting. He was inundated with requests for interviews immediately following the attack and continues to field interview requests each year near the date of its commemoration.
Werber’s initial interviews with Oppenheimer occurred during the early rush of many interviews he gave, including those with CBS and an Israeli radio station.
“To be honest, I had so many different people coming to me and asking for interviews,” Werber said. “I don’t recall the initial meeting. I talked to a lot of people.”
Werber was sent an excerpt of the book that included his portrayal, and although he doesn’t remember his early contact with the author, he said Oppenheimer “got pretty deeply into my psyche,” and noted he wouldn’t have been so open if he didn’t feel that he was being treated fairly.
If Werber has one complaint about the book, he said, it is that he hoped to see more written about the consequences of the massacre.
“I was hoping it would be more of how the Squirrel Hill community, or the community in general, reacted,” he said.
Sara Stock Mayo, a community activist and co-leader of Kesher Pittsburgh, said Oppenheimer approached her shortly after the massacre.
“I’m a storyteller, I’m a person that believes in narratives and hopefully trying to get them told right in terms of lived experiences and trying to look at the whole landscape,” Mayo said.
Oppenheimer did that well, she said, adding that she appreciated seeing the author at community events — not pushing for a story, but simply showing his support.
“He came and was just there,” Mayo said. “He just wanted to be with the community and observe. He was really lovely and very down to earth.”
While some Pittsburghers featured in Oppenheimer’s book praised the author, the book’s publication hasn’t occurred without controversy.
Shaare Torah Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, for example, has voiced dissatisfaction with his portrayal in the book.
“I gave this man time and talked about things I really did not want to go over, but I was trying to help him,” Wasserman wrote in a text statement. “His response was to present a fabricated portrayal as he introduced me to the reader that was untrue, unnecessary and unkind. And, after spending time with him, he still got some of the details I shared with him wrong.”
Audrey Glickman, a Tree of Life member and survivor of the massacre, views the book as a lost opportunity and said she was “dissatisfied” with its contents.
“Dissatisfied in all directions,” she said. “Dissatisfied in what got portrayed, dissatisfied in what didn’t get portrayed and dissatisfied in the incorrectness.”
Glickman said Oppenheimer squandered the opportunity to create the definitive work about what happened on Oct. 27, 2018, and its aftermath.
“Books have no time constraints,” Glickman said. “You should really focus on them to a bigger extent than what he did and present more detail and be more careful than he was.”
Glickman noted many inaccuracies in Oppenheimer’s work, including the fact that Rabbi Alvin Berkun never worked at Congregation Beth Shalom.
She said the book presents a slanted view of the community, including Oppenheimer’s claim that Jews in the city’s Hill District were afraid of the Black and immigrant communities moving into the neighborhood and, as a result, fled for Squirrel Hill.
Glickman took particular umbrage at the fact that Oppenheimer failed to mention the morning minyan hosted by Beth Shalom following the massacre, which included the three congregations that were attacked.
Several community members contacted by the Chronicle who were featured in the book declined to comment.
While this is the first book that includes both narrative accounts of the attack and extensive interviews with the community, it probably won’t be the last — something Werber thinks is OK.
“I think it has to be repeated,” Werber said. “I go back to the famous statement, ‘History forgotten is history repeated.’ Some of the younger generation doesn’t know about the Holocaust. I know it happened. I had relatives that lived through it. It [the massacre at the Tree of Life building] has to be repeated in honor of the 11 that were lost. It’s a necessity. I don’t want people to forget it. I don’t want people to back to living thinking, ‘This is past history, it will never happen again.’” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.