A selection from a new book on the October 27 attack on the Tree of Life building
Journalist Mark Oppenheimer’s new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” recounting the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting and its aftermath was published on October 5.
A selection from the book, selected for the Oppenheimer Chronicle, follows.
Nina Butler is a former principal of Hillel Academy, one of the two Orthodox schools in Squirrel Hill, and a member of the Holy Orthodox Society. She was one of the shomrim who guarded the bodies at the medical examiner’s office, comforting dead souls with prayers. On the Saturday night of the shooting, after the closing Shabbat prayers, she went to stand outside Tree of Life, where she first learned that Cecil and David Rosenthal were among the dead. Butler and her husband, Danny, have two adult sons with the same disabilities as the Rosenthal brothers. Shortly after returning home, her phone rang. It was Daniel Yolkut, his rabbi at the Poale Zedeck synagogue. He said his phone was ringing off the hook and he was having trouble answering all calls from people outside who wanted to help.
“He said, ‘Nina, do something for all these people calling me.’ So I created a really basic Google form. The form asked questions such as “How many are in your group?” “” When do you expect to arrive? “When are you going to leave? And if visitors needed kosher food, hours of synagogue service, and funeral information. After creating the form that night, she sent it to Yolkut, who loved it and shared it with Daniel Wasserman, the head of the holy society and the rabbi of the other major modern Orthodox synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Wasserman liked the form as well, so they shared it with the Rabbinical Council of America email group, the national body of modern Orthodox rabbis. On Saturday night, Butler was suddenly the coordinator of “every synagogue and every school” that wanted to send people to Pittsburgh.
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In no time, Butler’s form had been filled out by forty-two different groups who wanted to visit, mostly synagogues and high schools, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Los Angeles and elsewhere. A woman from Israel did not intend to come immediately but wanted to offer her services: “My name is Rena Ariel. I live in Israel and I lost my daughter Hallel in a terrorist attack 2 years ago. She was 13.5 years old. If you need help talking to groups or schools, we’ve got you covered.
Many people were planning to bring groups to the funeral and visit the families who were sitting shiva. The tone of the answers varied; some seemed to understand that they could help better by staying away, or sending food or money, while others intended to come: I’m sorry to contact you about this horrible tragedy. My synagogue would like to find a way to embrace the families of the victims. Is there a way for us to sponsor one or more shiva meals? Can you think of one way we could be of service from a distance? “
“We are a group of Baltimore rabbis who would like to visit as many aveilim” – mourners – “as possible. Wednesday is the best day for us, but if you think it’s not a good idea or if you can tell us how we can maximize our short stay in Pittsburgh, that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.”
“We are considering bringing in a group of Columbia / Barnard students. We can have some flexibility on the dates so I wanted to see if there were any particular days / times / shivas / funerals that visits would be most appreciated before solidifying the details from us. Thanks for organizing this!
“Just a general idea of if our presence there would be favorable and welcome, and the best time to come.”
“Please can you send me the names of the people hospitalized and the addresses of the hospitals.” Thank you.”
Very quickly, Butler realized that the best thing she could do was tell people to stay away. She summed up the message she gave them: “’We are the warmest and most welcoming community in the country: please don’t come. Please, please don’t come. ‘ She was protecting two groups of people: the Orthodox Jews of Pittsburgh, who would already have their hands full to guard bodies, prepare kosher meals, house relatives and support each other in a time of communal mourning, but especially families. the deceased, who would not want strangers to come to the funeral and then to their homes. And they would especially not want to receive Orthodox Jews whose strictly traditional mourning customs seem foreign to them.
The dead, after all, were not Orthodox. Butler must have told those who were eager to visit “that not only have none of the shivas been announced yet, but when they are, they will not be shivas like what you imagine” – shivas where people in mourners have covered all the mirrors in the house, to guard against vanity, and sit quietly on the traditional low stools, then pray with a quorum of ten. “Some of them, their shivas might look like a cocktail. Some of them might not have a shiva. I said, ‘If these people have a bunch of men in black suits with white shirts and big black hats coming in and sitting down and looking at them, that would be disastrous. They won’t know where to hide. . . .
They really don’t want to meet new people.
For the most part, the potential visitors Butler contacted understood and stayed away. But many did not. The Jewish student at a major state university who wanted to show his face just drove to Pittsburgh – that was a case in point. And some of the Jews Butler contacted did not take his advice kindly. She mentioned someone in “a very exclusive New York [City] day school ”who“ got angry ”. “‘But you don’t understand,’ the teacher told her. “’We have three buses of our best students that we want to send to you. How do you say no, these are our best, best students! I said, ‘But it’s not about you, and it’s not about your best students. It’s about those grieving people and what they need this week.
A Sephardic Jew from New York couldn’t help it. “I know you don’t really want us to come,” he told Butler, “but I just have to be there. I can’t be anywhere else, so don’t blame myself, but I’m coming anyway. He came, and the butlers got him for a Shabbat meal.
Excerpt from SQUIRREL HILL: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Oppenheimer. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.