While the Shabbat massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh on October 27 hit close to home for virtually all members of Jewish communities around the world, it hit particularly close to home for Leslie Kaufman, vice-president of corporate services for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, who grew up in the neighbourhood and offers these thoughts.
I grew up in Squirrel Hill. My parents’ house was just three blocks from Tree of Life, and around the corner from the home of Mr. Rogers (yes, that Mr. Rogers). A quiet residential neighborhood with a vibrant business district, it was the Jewish hub blended into a culturally diverse community. The iconic street corner is Forbes and Murray, which we called “up street.” If you watched the Saturday night vigil, you saw that intersection – filled with thousands of people of all faiths, coming together with candles and umbrellas to pray and give support.
Within steps from that corner, you find the kosher butcher, grocer, and baker. You find the JCC, a Jewish senior living centre, small and large synagogues, and Jewish day schools.
But you also find the famous Mineo’s Pizza House – not kosher, but they close every year for the week of Pesach. You find banks closed on Saturdays, but open on Sundays. You find public schools that close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In this community, the culture of Jewish life is a part of everyone’s life.
Squirrel Hill is my home. And on Saturday, October 27, my home was tragically invaded. The building that proudly displayed on its outer wall the enormous metal sculpture of a tree, designed and crafted by my cousin, was desecrated. The mother of my brother’s basketball coach was murdered, and his sister injured. The kind man whose real estate business was next door to my father’s was slain. And larger-than-life Cecil – a Squirrel Hill fixture who everyone knew and loved – will no longer walk down Forbes Street or through the JCC, saying hello to everyone he passes.
I am sad. I am angry. I am homesick.
As I took my seat at the memorial at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre on October 28, I looked up to see a familiar face from my childhood. Ottawa is 800 km from Pittsburgh, so the fact that Janey was standing two feet away from me was inconceivable. She was in town visiting a friend and heard about the memorial. Janey and I went to school together, and she too grew up mere blocks from the shul. She knew Dr. Jerry, and she knew Alan and Andrea’s mom Rose. We hugged and cried together, so far from home but connected by our heritage and birthplace.
This is a week to mourn, to remember, to take comfort in the kindness of friends and neighbours. This is a week to cherish community and to once again take strength from our history. I am proud to work for the Jewish community in Ottawa, and I thank the community for embracing me – a nice Jewish girl from Squirrel Hill who has made Ottawa her new home.