Squir­rel Hill: The Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue Shoot­ing and the Soul of a Neighborhood

  • Review
By – January 10, 2022

Where were you on Sat­ur­day, Octo­ber 27, 2018? On the day of the dead­liest sin­gle anti­se­mit­ic attack in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States, it’s a ques­tion that has res­onat­ed through the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, poised to be a defin­ing one for this gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish Amer­i­cans. The impact of the syn­a­gogue shoot­ing at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life syn­a­gogue is still being defined, and as Mark Oppen­heimer demon­strates in his book Squir­rel Hill, the his­to­ry is still very much being written.

Oppenheimer’s writ­ing is exquis­ite­ly detailed, intro­duc­ing read­ers to a vast group of indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions impact­ed by the day’s vio­lence. These details bring com­plex­i­ty and com­pas­sion to the mur­dered vic­tims, as well as to the sur­vivors who were in the build­ing and the mem­bers and lead­ers of the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty. These details are essen­tial to human­iz­ing the expe­ri­ence while also keep­ing the read­er focused on the par­tic­u­lar­i­ty of its con­text. In Oppenheimer’s account of the attack and the months that fol­lowed, the trib­ute to the neigh­bor­hood of Squir­rel Hill, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Pitts­burgh, the dif­fer­ent con­gre­ga­tions, and each per­son affect­ed is an essen­tial com­po­nent of the his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment that this book ulti­mate­ly rep­re­sents. There is a sense in read­ing the book that the author is not only report­ing on the news sto­ry but also cre­at­ing a defin­i­tive record that will shape read­ers’ under­stand­ing of its sig­nif­i­cance for decades to come.

Squir­rel Hill is at its best when it focus­es on the rela­tion­ships and the coop­er­a­tion that were present in the neigh­bor­hood before the shoot­ings, which became a source of tremen­dous strength after­wards. As the book pro­gress­es and the social net­works become larg­er and more com­plex, Oppenheimer’s inti­mate knowl­edge of the city and per­son­al con­nec­tions to the peo­ple he writes about help ori­ent his read­ers so they don’t get lost in the labyrinth of char­ac­ters. Luck­i­ly, the book also includes a use­ful map of the geo­graph­ic area, and the pho­tographs and Notes on Report­ing” sec­tion fur­ther enrich­es the read­ing experience.

A book that nav­i­gates the ten­sion between the graph­ic account of the phys­i­cal vio­lence, the depth of the emo­tion­al response, and unpack­ing the lofti­er ques­tions about exis­tence demands read­ers’ time, patience, and endurance. And this is as it should be. Above all, Oppen­heimer treats his sub­ject with the seri­ous­ness and empa­thy that it deserves. He doesn’t offer plat­i­tudes; rather, Squir­rel Hill demon­strates what it means to tru­ly care about anti­semitism, trau­ma, vio­lence, grief, and hope.

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994

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