My otherness was brought to the forefront of my consciousness Saturday morning in the most heartbreaking way possible.
I’m a Reform Jew, and I spent my formative years in Squirrel Hill, a quiet, welcoming neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It also happens to be one of the most Jewish neighborhoods in the country. Synagogues adorn practically every corner, and I was constantly surrounded by a Jewish community brimming with affection and care. It was a great place to grow up.
Leaving Squirrel Hill at 18 was strange, as it became crystal clear that my childhood experience was not an accurate representation of what the real world is like for Jews. My Squirrel Hill bubble burst as I was (and continue to be) confronted with situations that either reminded me I'm Jewish or a native Pittsburgher. I’ll never fully get used to folks going out of their way to poke at those two fundamental pillars of my identity.
Saturday was the greatest challenge yet to my sense of security as both a Jew and a Pittsburgher. Robert Bowers’ rampage through Tree of Life synagogue — two miles and a seven-minute drive from my childhood home — that left 11 dead and six injured forced me to re-evaluate just how important my city and my religion are to me.
I’m happy to report that, after some soul-searching, I came out the other side surer of my identity than ever before. That probably wasn’t Bowers’ intention, and the best part is I’m probably not alone in that re-affirmation of my Jewish faith and my Pittsburgh pride.
Pittsburghers are notoriously loyal to their hometown. Just ask anyone who’s ever attended a Steelers away game only to encounter more flailing Terrible Towels than fans of the home team. Or talk to anyone who’s made the mistake of insulting Pittsburgh only to be lectured about the city’s modernization efforts.
Once a yinzer, always a yinzer.
Living in Washington, D.C., and having attended the University of Maryland, I am regularly bombarded with slights against Pittsburgh from folks who have never been there and have no idea what they’re talking about. Tragedies like this destroy my patience for that ignorance. I don’t care if it’s just a good-natured effort to trigger me; I love my hometown, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to blaspheme it to my face.
I, like every other Pittsburgher I know, was horrified by what happened at Tree of Life. I didn’t belong to Tree of Life, but I attended countless Bar Mitzvahs there and still know some of its current congregants. It was a nightmare to see that sanctuary turn into a house of horror, but even more heartening to see the city come together in a show of support and love. Eat your heart out, Bowers.
This is the beautiful Pittsburgh I love pic.twitter.com/Zzzq9Kdm1e— Daniel Gilman (@danielgilman) October 27, 2018
I have a more complicated relationship with Judaism than Pittsburgh. I will fully admit to being much less passionate about that part of my identity. Sure, I fast for Yom Kippur every year and have three Hebrew words tattooed on my right wrist. But it’s rarely something I flaunt, mostly for fear of incurring the ugliness that can come with that revelation.
Well, I have never felt more nakedly Jewish than I did on Saturday. It brought back memories of every time someone made a Jew joke in my presence and I smiled and moved the conversation along while suppressing my annoyance. Suddenly, I was getting extremely angry at folks on Twitter who clearly were never taught what it means to be a “conservative Jew.”
PSA: A synagogue being “conservative” is not a statement about the political beliefs of its members. Conservatism is a denomination within Judaism akin to Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. It has Zero to do with how one feels about the GOP or Trump or whatever.— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) October 27, 2018
As a white American Jew, I am more than aware of the privilege that affords me in my everyday life. But the Pittsburgh shooting reminded me that I am an “other,” someone who could (and has been) easily singled out as different. That it took a horrible event like this to bring this idea roaring to the surface is sad, but here we are.
It’s worth mentioning that attacks like this can’t be taken in a vacuum; one must consider the broader objectives at play here. When Bowers barged into that synagogue guns blazing and loudly spouting his anti-Semitic rhetoric, he probably thought he was going to scare not just the Pittsburgh Jewish community, but every Jew in the United States and beyond into submission.
It’s the sort of warped “we don’t want your kind here” logic aimed squarely at Jews that has popped up recently in both obvious places like the now-infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., to more insidious ones like on the lips of a D.C. councilman. Relatedly, the Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic incidents increased by 57 percent in 2017, the largest such year-to-year spike since it started tracking this data in 1979.
Convincing Jews the world over that they are unwelcome others was probably at least part of Bowers’ twisted plan. Here’s the thing Bowers probably didn’t count on: I came to the inescapable conclusion that I love and embrace my Jewishness. Based on the sentiments being expressed by other Jews on social media, I was far from alone in experiencing that epiphany.
If Bowers’ goal was to unsettle the worldwide Jewish community, mission accomplished. But if he thought we were going to retreat in fear never to be heard from again, he wasn’t paying attention to the last 5,000 years of Jewish history.
We, both Pittsburghers and Jews, are a people defined by our work ethic and mental fortitude. It will take more than one act of anti-Semitic terrorism to erase us.
Joshua Axelrod (@jaxel222) is a graduate student in Media and Strategic Communications at George Washington University. Previously he was a web producer and pop politics writer for the Washington Examiner.