Author Mark Oppenheimer brings the soul of Squirrel Hill to D.C.

Author Mark Oppenheimer speaks to Rabbi Eliana Fischel at Washington Hebrew Congregation. Photo by Benjamin Kahn

Three years after the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, writer Mark Oppenheimer came to Washington Hebrew Congregation to tell what he had learned while working on his book “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.”

“It is not a book about the killer and it is not a book about the victims either,” Oppenheimer said during Shabbat services on Oct. 22. “It is a book
about neighborhood.”

The neighborhood remains a recognizably Jewish neighborhood, he said. More than a quarter of Pittsburgh’s Jews live there.

“I decided to do something that I did not think had been done before,” he said. “I decided to write a book about a mass killing in which the protagonist is not the killer or the killed but rather the neighborhood that was affected by it.”

When Oppenheimer visited the scene, it was nearly a month after the killings. “Something was lost [by waiting], but something was also gained because people had a little time to process [what had happened].”

Oppenheimer spoke to the relatives of the victims, their spouses and outsiders from local, national and international communities. In the wake of the shooting, a local troupe of therapy dogs, a medical clown from Israel and Jewish day school students from across the country arrived to help those impacted —with some mixed results. All of these groups become characters in Oppenheimer’s book.

“What you discover in the aftermath of all sorts of horrible events…is that people are often at their best and a lot of walls come down.” Compassion poured out of the surrounding areas, Oppenheimer said, though some groups did a better job of supporting the community than others. “Some of the people that come into a community after a tragedy like this are what locals call ‘trauma tourists.’”

The trauma tourists were joined by other well-meaning, albeit intrusive, outsiders. Others entered the community more gracefully, Oppenheimer said.

“There were rabbis who came from across the country —quietly. They did not ask for credit. They did not ask for money. But they came to help fill in and support the rabbis who were in the building and got out alive.”

In the wake of some of these less-than-helpful “tourists,” Oppenheimer said that some Jewish communities began asking him how they could assist those impacted. Some of the congregation’s most committed members were killed, so he recommended that nearby synagogues and Jewish communities go to Squirrel Hill to help survivors read Torah or make
a minyan.

“Rather than showing up the week of [the shooting] and saying, ‘Can we wallow in your grief with you,’ figure out what they need two and three years later and just go and do it.”
Oppenheimer also wrestled with the role of social justice while writing the book. “Does the world respond more to the mass killing of 11 people than it does to the slow drip of deaths that [are a daily occurrence in Chicago]?”

What does the future look like? Oppenheimer is torn. “This was the worst antisemitic attack in American history. On the other hand, this is still a remarkably safe country — in historical perspective — to be Jewish. I am pleased to see that as a country we did not rush to a mass militarization of [synagogues]. That would just be such a sad way to live and it is not warranted.”

Additional authors will appear at Washington Hebrew Congregation in November and December. For information, see

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