‘Where were you on Oct. 27, 2018?’
OpinionFirst Person

‘Where were you on Oct. 27, 2018?’

Pittsburghers recount hearing about Oct. 27 massacre

For this commemorative issue, we asked people in the Pittsburgh community to recall where they were when they heard the news about the shooting at the Tree of Life building, and how things have changed from them in the year since. These are their answers, presented in alphabetical order.

Evelyn Aizenstein, Community Day School eighth-grader
I remember when I found out. It was the weekend after my bat mitzvah. I overheard my mom talking with my grandma and I was confused. I heard my mom saying things like, “We are safe.” I also heard the name of my synagogue, Dor Hadash, followed by “I hope everyone is OK.” I was confused. I went to my room and searched “Dor Hadash” on my phone. I wasn’t expecting anything, but sadly I was wrong. I saw articles labeled “Tree of Life Shooting.” I clicked on one of them. That was the moment I realized what had happened.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. There had been a shooting at my synagogue. The same synagogue where I had my bat mitzvah the previous week. This can’t be happening. I walked back downstairs, and sure enough, I saw my family in the living room with the news turned on: “Breaking News: Mass Shooting at Synagogue Tree of Life.” I quietly sat down and silently watched the news in shock and heartache.

I watched as the news changed from three people injured to 11 people murdered and six injured in a matter of minutes. I took out my phone and saw countless notifications. They all read the same thing: “Are you safe?” The same message came from my closest friends to people who I haven’t seen in years. Throughout the entirety of that day, I was unable to comprehend what had happened. You hear about these things happening on the news, but you never think that they are going to happen where you live. In your place of worship. In your neighborhood.

In this tragic event, all of my friends and family came together. Through this, I learned that during times of hardship, a community is strengthened and brought together.

Levi Altein, eighth-grader, Yeshiva Schools
When the shooting happened I was a few blocks away in the new building, Chabad of Pittsburgh, on Beechwood and Forbes. A good friend came over to our shul and informed us of the shooting. At that time, we didn’t have much security, which frightened us. The best thing we could do was go into lockdown, which is what we did. While in lockdown, we were all thinking about what was happening at the Tree of Life.

I felt very sad when I heard about it.

The Tree of Life incident was very tragic, not just for the Jewish community, but for the whole world. The “hate crime” was of course done for no reason, except for the fact that we are Jews. The way to fight back hate crime is by spreading love and being prepared for an attack.

The main reason I think the shooting happened was because we are different. When people act different they are hated. This doesn’t only happen with Jews, but also with other religions and races. This incident is not the only time the Jews have been discriminated against. Throughout our history there have been many incidents of hatred against us.

Another remarkable point after the shooting is that everyone responded the same way. Everyone was devastated, but still we all helped out in our own way. Everyone in our Pittsburgh community helped. Even people around the country sent us cards and donations to rebuild the Tree of Life.

I think the best way we can stop future attacks is by being prepared with security. We also need to be a good example on the street when everyone sees us. As Jews, we need to spread the light of Torah and fight back the darkness with light.

Ann Belser, publisher of ‘Print,’ Pittsburgh’s East End weekly newspaper
I used to play Pokémon GO against my teenage son. The Tree of Life synagogue, which had three congregations, was the location of three Poké Stops. My dog even got used to sitting on the steps of the synagogue during his last walk of the night while I “caught” Pokémon.

We last did that on Oct. 26, 2018.

On the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, I was walking the dog before starting a full day of reporting for “Print.” I heard the first five shots and thought it was boxes falling in the UPS truck that had just turned the corner, but the dog tried to pull me away. A man who had been inside the synagogue when the shooting started ran to our house to call 911. He was inside with my family when I got home. He told me there was a shooter. I grabbed my camera and ran toward the synagogue, which is only 400 feet away. I was about halfway there when two police officers yelled for me to get back.

Those first weeks were awful. The television news crews, the police barricades, and the yellow police tape were constant reminders. For months, as the dog and I walked past the synagogue at night, I would get furious that a man thought it was heroic to kill elderly and defenseless people.

Our neighborhood still has the scars. Though I extricated the last bit of police tape from my hedge in July, there are knitted Stars of David hanging from the utility poles. The lights that were never on at night in the synagogue are lit every night. The building is behind a fence. People are leaving flowers there again.

My anger now is tinged with sorrow. I cry when I am alone and thinking about the shooting, as I am now, writing this for you. And I still do not play Pokémon GO.

Katriel Camp, ninth-grader at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh
Sirens had been racing up Murray Avenue all morning. In services at Shaare Torah, we were wondering what was going on. When Rabbi Wasserman interrupted the service and grimly told the congregation that there was an active shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, I was shocked. Really? Here in Squirrel Hill?

As the news sunk in, I was consumed by fear. As we did not have cell phones or access to media outlets, the scariest part was that there was so much we didn’t know. Had the shooter been caught? Had anyone been hurt? Were we safe? As services continued, there were more sirens and more announcements. We soon heard that people had been murdered. Everything was surreal.

At that point, my mother stepped out of the service to try to contact my grandparents to tell them we were OK. I trailed after her, not wanting to be separated from her. As she walked down the stairs to find a phone, my grandfather was coming up, looking desperately for us. They ran to each other, crying and embracing. I could see the relief in their eyes. My grandfather then communicated with other relatives, including my uncle in California, to reassure them that we were OK. We realized that Squirrel Hill must be making national headlines. It was only 8 a.m. in California and our family there had already heard the news.

Now, a year after that virulent act of anti-Semitism, whenever I think about that terrible day, I again hear the constant wailing of sirens. I feel the fear of sitting in shul that morning with only minimal information, and I feel the tearful relief of seeing my grandfather. The safety of my home, our community, was invaded. What happened that day will be with me forever.

Steven Field, Class of 2020, University of Pittsburgh, past president, Panthers for Israel (Hillel JUC)
On Oct. 27, 2018, my girlfriend and I were sitting on the Squirrel Hill 61C bus heading to Pamela’s when my phone started buzzing. I remember looking out the window as we turned onto Murray Avenue and expecting to see people running in the opposite direction of the Tree of Life building, or some sign of panic, something to validate what I felt inside. But there were only regular people going about their Saturday. My girlfriend and I sat on the bus past our stop. We sat tearfully until the end of bus route and took an Uber back to campus in silence.

At the time, I was president of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. I was still texting to make sure my brothers were safe when I began receiving proposals for how we could best heal with our community. We thought of everything: vigils, memorials, public art. By chance, we already had planned our annual event to bring a Holocaust survivor to campus. On Oct, 27, 2018, after an afternoon of mourning, my mindset changed to a need for action.

On Nov. 4, we gathered 350 students at the William Pitt Union to hear survivor Shulamit Bastacky speak. Planning the survivor event consumed all my energy, and my fraternity brothers had similar experiences. Hillel JUC gave us resources and centralized the campus Jewish community, which we simultaneously sought to help heal and receive healing from.

On Nov. 10, 2019, Ms. Bastacky is coming back to Pitt’s campus. This annual event has been our most important event since its inception in 2016, before Tree of Life. It is still our most important event, though the tone has changed. Of course we still plan this for the campus community, but since Tree of Life, we plan it for ourselves, too.

Corey O’Connor, member of Pittsburgh City Council
As I was about to leave my home Saturday morning to attend an event, I received a phone call that there was something “very bad” going on at Tree of Life Synagogue. I called the city’s public safety director, who told me there was an active shooter there and I immediately headed toward the site.
When I arrived, I saw that Public Safety had set up a “command center” at Murray Avenue off Wilkins. It was there that state and suburban SWAT teams gathered and the place for the mayor, chief executive and other elected officials to be briefed as information became available.
The overarching fear that first consumed me was a family issue. I have several young cousins who live one block behind Tree of Life. Because they are observant, they neither carry nor use cell phones on Shabbat and so would have no way of knowing what was happening literally in their back yard. Their walk to services each Shabbat follows a path that would have placed them close to the scene. With no way to warn them, I was terribly afraid for their safety.
My bigger reaction was one of shock and horror. While I was aware that anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry are ever present and seemingly growing, I still couldn’t believe that it had hit home in such a horrific and violent way. I find that one year later, I still feel much the same. Knowing that 11 good people, some of whom I knew, were murdered on the corner of Wilkins and Shady because they were Jewish is difficult to process. However, the outpouring of support from the Jewish community here and around the country, the entire Squirrel Hill neighborhood and our non-Jewish friends and neighbors has shown me that we have the capacity to stay strong and move forward.

Rabbi Yisroel Smith, 5-12 boys assistant principal, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh
I was in Cleveland for my niece’s bat mitzvah when my brother-in-law pulled me aside to tell me that there had been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. This was terrifying for me because my 12-year-old son had stayed in Pittsburgh for his friend’s bar mitzvah. He told me it was at Tree of Life but, at the time, I couldn’t place where exactly that was until a non-Jewish friend who was there looked up the address on his phone. The friend continued to give us updates as they came in. Right after Shabbos, after we found out my son was OK, my phone exploded with texts, emails and phone calls from close friends to casual acquaintances checking in to see if we were OK.

We got back to Pittsburgh just in time for the unity gathering at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. As we had rushed over and didn’t imagine it would be that full, my wife and I didn’t bring a coat or umbrella and we found ourselves standing in the rain. A woman saw us getting wet and she gave us her umbrella. It was a small gesture but it was meaningful to see people doing whatever they could to show that they empathized with our pain.

Since the shooting, I am both fearful of the renewed resurgence of violent anti-Semitism, while at the same time, grateful for the show of love and unity expressed by the larger Pittsburgh and world community.

I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors who maintained their faith despite having lost parents, siblings and children. I continue to be guided by the same trust that they had that, no matter how bad things seem, Hashem loves us and will always do what is best for us.

Jeffrey Solomon, chairman and CEO, Cowen Inc.
I returned to my home in Larchmont, New York, from getting my Saturday morning coffee when the call came from my mother. I picked up the phone to say hello and immediately got a second call from my daughter who was calling me from Emma Kaufmann Camp. When I asked my mom to hold on, she said, “Wait! She is calling you to tell you that there is an active shooter at the Tree of Life. Dad and I are OK. We are out of town.”

In that moment, the world changed.

My wife, Linda, is also a Pittsburgh native. We spent the rest of the day together at home waiting for news. Waiting for the names that we knew would come. Like so many of us who live in the Pittsburgh Jewish Diaspora, we both remain closely connected to the community that birthed and raised us. For me, Tree of Life is the place where I first learned what it means to a Jew. It is where I became a bar mitzvah. We sobbed uncontrollably when we got word.

The next day, we accompanied a contingent from the UJA Federation of New York to the vigil at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. Joined by our families, in a state of deep pain, we marveled at the outpouring of support from the greater Pittsburgh community. And the healing began.

Over the past year, I have spoken about the events of Oct. 27 all over the world. I have told many people about the specialness that is the Tree of Life, that is Squirrel Hill, that is Pittsburgh in the hopes of connecting them in a more personal way to the tragedy. And I have taken comfort in the grace extended to me by so many. More importantly, I work hard every day to do something good — something deliberately positive — in the memory of those who perished.

Erika Strassburger said if elected she would focus on clean water, strategic growth and infrastructure. (Photo courtesy of Erika Strassburger)

Erika Strassburger, member of Pittsburgh City Council
I was attending a gathering two blocks away on Shady Avenue, preparing to knock on doors for a political candidate. The event began at 10 a.m., and on my way, I noticed that a police vehicle was blocking a portion of Shady. As the councilperson for the area I made note of that and was just about to check with our police commander to see if there was a downed tree limb or perhaps a disabled traffic signal, when one of the hosts of the gathering said to me, “Erika, I think you should know, there are reports of an active shooter at Tree of Life.”

Within minutes, I was fielding calls from The New York Times, doing my best to update them on the situation even as I was struggling to find information myself. I was four months pregnant at the time, and while I knew I needed to keep myself safe, I felt a strong desire to get onto the scene and to help in any way I could, and I quickly joined others who had gathered in the staging area awaiting news.

Over the next several months, I did my very best to represent the district, Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh in what felt like nonstop media interviews. I attended vigils and gatherings, and checked in with constituents I was concerned about — and yet I felt I was not doing enough. It took me a while to process my own feelings. The grief from that day washes over me at unexpected moments, more often now that the one-year remembrance is approaching.

Today I oscillate between two main feelings: concern and sadness for those most immediately affected and Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, and heart-bursting pride at the way Squirrel Hill and the city came together for their neighbors. pjc

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