School was in session on Oct. 27. Bells rang and tests were administered, yet scores of western Pennsylvanian students stood outside the Tree of Life building.
Five years after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, middle schoolers, high schoolers and young adults paid their respects on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues.
Throughout Friday morning, buses stopped, children disembarked and members of Generation Z quietly ambled around the building’s perimeter.
More than 150 students from Baldwin-Whitehall, Seneca Valley, Shaler Area, Northgate, Woodland Hills and Avonworth school districts visited the site of the most violent attack on Jews in U.S. history before walking to Chatham University to continue learning about antisemitism.
“It became clear that students wanted to come down here on the five-year anniversary, so we decided to plan an event,” Nick Haberman, a teacher at Shaler Area High School and the director of the Light Education Initiative, told the Chronicle.
Friday’s daylong program included stopping at Tree of Life, watching the “Repairing the World” documentary at Chatham then touring the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
Dave Gerrich, a teacher at Seneca Valley, said young people need to see the Squirrel Hill synagogue and learn what happened inside its sacred space.
“It is critical,” he said, “to keep moving on in humanity, learning about our history and being supportive.”
Casey Weiss, an assistant principal at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, spent Friday bringing dozens of middle schoolers to the site.
“We decided to take a walk from school up to Tree of Life and to collect as much trash as possible,” she said.
Beautifying the neighborhood involved two tasks, she continued. After retrieving litter en route, students from the Jewish day school stood outside the shuttered synagogue and recited Psalms.
The crowd outside Tree of Life on Friday included other community members as well. Sharon Ryave Brody, president of Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc., came with her sons and employees to the corner in Squirrel Hill.
Marking what happened there five years ago is “more important now than ever,” she said.
“Right now, it’s a scary time to be Jewish in America, and I think it is important to get in touch with this and never forget the violence that we’ve had to go through in the past,” Josh Brody said.
“Especially as time goes on, we have to make sure that it’s important to remember those who we’ve lost and those who continue to fight in the community and represent the Jewish world,” Ben Brody said.
Several students visiting the site had “never been to the city,” Haberman said. “Many of them have never spent time in Squirrel Hill.”
Bringing students to the corner, and having them walk a small portion of the neighborhood, gave them insight into not just the shooting, “but about life before 10/27 and what has happened in the last five years,” he said.
One day before the students’ arrival, several pro-Israel yard signs were defaced in Squirrel Hill. Outside a house near Blue Slide Park and Community Day School, a sign declaring “We Stand with Israel” was painted over in red with a giant “NO.”
On the yellow brick wall surrounding Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, “FREE PALESTINE PGH→GAZA” was spray-painted in black.
Haberman said that neither the vandalism nor war in Israel would be addressed during Friday’s visit to Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish neighborhood.
“Today is the first day for many of the students that we’re opening the door into antisemitism in general,” he said. “Some of these kids have not learned about antisemitism in the Holocaust; they’ve not learned about it before the Holocaust. They didn’t learn about it between the Holocaust and Tree of Life. And they certainly haven’t studied the contemporary Middle East. We know that we’re not going to explain everything in an hour.”
The goal with students in grades 7-12, is creating age-appropriate conversations, providing resources and developing lesson plans to engender greater understanding, Haberman explained.
“We’re hoping that we can open doors,” he said. “For some of these kids, this is the first time that they have learned about Tree of Life. Some of them were 7 years old when it happened.”
“What we’re seeing is the next generation learning at the right moment in time,” Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, said while standing outside the Tree of Life building.
“A lot of the students we see here were too young to understand in 2018 what was going on,” she continued. “”I think they are old enough now to know that they are part of that legacy and that they carry it forward.”
As children and young adults reflected, prayed and picked up garbage throughout Oct. 27, Feinstein shared her optimism.
“I think it’s really hopeful for our future,” she said. “I think that these kids will find [a] voice in ways that I could never figure out how to do, and I believe that they will make changes that are very important.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.