Tree of Life Synagogue
The Tree of Life Congregation was founded in 1864. They met in temporary spaces until 1882, when they bought a former Lutheran church downtown to use as a synagogue (1). They moved to Oakland in 1907, then to their current location in Squirrel Hill in 1952. At the time, many of the Tree of Life Congregation’s members were living in Squirrel Hill (2). In 2010, the Tree of Life congregation and the Or L’Simcha congregation merged to form the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregation (3).
The Jewish community in Squirrel Hill is well known for its vibrant culture and welcoming spirit. The rich history of this congregation has been a part of the Pittsburgh community for generations, and it will still serve for generations to come.
On Saturday, October 27, 2018, Robert D. Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 style assault rifle and a glock pistol, and opened fire on the congregation. Bowers was part of an online community “Gab”, and right before he started his massacre he posted, “I’m going in.” This was one of the many anti semitic posts that Bowers had on his profile, including his bio reading “Jews are the children of Satan.” After firing multiple shots in the synagogue, Bowers barricaded himself in the building until finally coming out after police negotiations. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit was called after reports that Bowers had an explosive device in the synagogue, and Bowers was moved to the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds, where he was given a fair condition report after hours in the hospital. There was a total of 11 casualties during this tragic attack on a very peaceful group (4).
President Donald Trump
After the attacks, President Trump was under scrutiny for not cancelling his rally in Illinois the same day as the shooting. He responded at the rally saying he did not cancel because it would make “sick, demented people important” (5). Many supported him because of this, but many still believed that he should have cancelled the event out of respect for those who lost their lives. Trump visited Pittsburgh and the synagogue on October 30th, which caused more controversy. The current head of the synagogue welcomed Trump with open arms saying “The President of the United States is always welcome.” While former leaders of the synagogue spoke out about how they did not want Trump to visit. (6)
After the shooting, there were many fundraisers to help support the victims families and the synagogue. One of them being the Stronger Than Hate T-shirt sale. One company out of Grove City sold more than 1000 shirts very quickly after the tragedy, and a large portion of the profits went directly to the synagogue. One customer bought 1000 shirts to be donated to the Squirrel Hill and surrounding areas to show support for the synagogue (7). Overall, donations totalled over $4 million. A committee was formed headed by David Shapira, chairman of Giant Eagle, to decide how to distribute the funds. Within this $4 million, multiple professional sports teams in the Pittsburgh area donated to the cause. One example of this is the Pittsburgh Penguins who donated nearly $350,000 to the synagogue and the families. The Penguins also donated $200,000 to the first responders in Pittsburgh, who made sure that this tragedy didn’t escalate more than it did (8). Another fundraiser, organized by CelebrateMercy and MPower Change, raised over $230,000 (9).
Social Media Response
In the past few years, social media has become the place for people to share news, express their opinions, and learn about what is happening in the world. It is a way for people to form communities throughout the country and organize local events. In this section, the role of Twitter and Facebook in the month after the Tree of Life shooting is portrayed.
In the month following the attack, Twitter became an important platform for people to share news, events, and how they were feeling. The most used hashtags were: #treeoflife, #strongerthanhate, #antiSemitism, #StopTheHate, #TreeOfLifeSynagogue, and #maytheirmemoriesbeablessing. Twitter users around the U.S. used these hashtags to start a conversation about the massacre and voice their opinions and feelings after such an event. Below is an overview of each hashtag.
#treeoflife is used to talk about events happening around Pittsburgh, such as the Festival of Chanukah, multiple benefit concerts, and fundraisers. (10)
#strongerthanhate is a more personal hashtag, used to express condolences and share individuals’ opinions. (11)
#antiSemitism is used to share news stories and individual stories of antisemitism from both Pittsburgh and around the world. (12)
#stopthehate is a place for people to share stories of, and have conversations about, hate, many that did not end up on the news. Many of the tweets using this hashtag are replies. People are using it to start a conversation and express their opinions about something that happened to them or an event they heard about. (13)
#TreeOfLifeSynagogue is used to talk about events, news coverage, interviews, and give tributes to the victims. This hashtag appears to be focused on offering support to those affected by the tragedy. While there is some anger, the overall tone is one of supporting each other and keeping each other informed. (14)
#maytheirmemoriesbeablessing is a more general hashtag, discussing many tragedies that have occured around the U.S., recent and in the past. It is used to remember victims of hate and shootings. (15)
Facebook is another place that was essential in the few weeks after the shooting. Organizations posted, and continue to post, messages of love and tributes to those who lost their lives.
Information about the memorial, vigils, and benefit concerts, another fundraising events was spread using this platform. There were also multiple discussion events that gave people the opportunity to discuss anti-semitism, extremism in the media, white nationalism, and gun reform. (16)
The following pieces showcase multiple works done by the Writing for Change class at the University of Pittsburgh. While no one will forget the tragedy that happened on that rainy day in October, we also shouldn’t forget what needs to be changed. This website serves as a platform for change, and as a way to remember those who lost their lives, family members, and community members.
Christopher Minor and Sarah Tolaymat