“We all need to be respectful and kind and nice to each other.”
Rabbi Mordy Rudolph was on his way to synagogue, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, when first heard reports of a shooting. “The mailman stopped me, and he said, ‘I hope you weren’t planning to go to Tree of Life,’” Rudolph, 35, recalled.
Since Eastern European Jews settled there in the 1920s, Squirrel Hill has been the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh. In recent years, the neighborhood’s Asian and Muslim population have grown, and now only 26 percent of residents are Jewish, but Rudolph says families like his welcome this diversity. “Denominations get blurred,” he said. “We try not to focus much on that.”
Eleven people died and another six were injured at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday after a gunman opened fire during Shabbat services. Rudolph, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, had been walking with his 10-year-old son to Lubavitch Center, the Orthodox synagogue he attends, but he has close ties to Tree of Life: His father had his bar mitzvah there, and he knows several of its members.
Speaking from his office days after the attack, Rudolph, an ordained rabbi who runs the Friendship Circle, a Jewish non-profit that works with youth and adults with disabilities, described a community in shock, but united. He spoke with Roads & Kingdoms’ Emily Marinoff about the hours after the attack and how locals of all faiths are coming together to heal. His account was condensed and edited.
“I usually walk with my son, Chaim, to synagogue on Saturdays. We left the house around 10:30 a.m., and didn’t really notice anything different—we live on the corner of two quiet streets. The mailman stopped me and he said, ‘I don’t know where you’re headed for synagogue, but I hope you weren’t planning to go to Tree of Life.’
“He said he was hearing reports of a mass shooting there. He wasn’t quite sure of all the details but knew that Tree of Life was on lockdown. At that point, I noticed the amount of background noise—there was an excessive amount of sirens. But we continued on about a block-and-a-half, and then another neighbor said, ‘I would avoid the synagogues right now. There’s no word that they’ve actually caught this guy yet.’
“We walked toward my brother’s house, nearby. On the way there, a complete stranger pulled over and warned us, again, about the shooting. When we arrived at my brother’s house, his children’s babysitter pulled out her phone to check the news (we don’t use phones on the Sabbath). We started seeing reports of the attack. At that point, my son was super nervous, and I didn’t want my wife, Rivkee, to be home by herself. So we went home and broke the news to her. We mostly stayed home after that. I made a couple trips back to my brother’s house, knocked on the neighbors’ doors who we knew belonged to Tree of Life, but people kind of stayed inside.
“[Even though we couldn’t read the news on the Sabbath], I don’t know how anyone could not find out. The synagogue was on lockdown, there was so much going on. We tried to keep ourselves as in the loop as possible. There was this surreal element of just trying to kind of keep it all together without really knowing what was going on. It was so close to our home, it was very eerie.
“We had two Friendship Circle social events scheduled for the next day. We debated canceling them but felt that people were craving connection. They want to feel like they’re part of the community as much now as they ever were. So we’re really glad we stayed on, and attendees were really appreciative that we did too.
“There’s so much going on. We’re attending funerals over the next few days and are trying to turn previously scheduled events into opportunities for people to get together and share their thoughts and voices and feelings. We’re definitely all thinking about what we can all do for the victims and for their families. We’re all suffering in our own way. Everyone coming together in the same space just breeds this sense of community. We all support each other.
“The Jewish Federation organized a vigil Sunday night at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, and the head of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh spoke and said that they wanted to help. So they started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money to help with any costs associated with the tragedy. We’ve raised over $70,000 already [Editor’s note: The figure has since risen to nearly $950,000.].
“It feels like we need to do whatever we can to make sure that we address challenges facing the Jewish community today. For any of the synagogues on Shabbat, people can just walk right in so, God forbid, if anyone wanted to do anything again, it wouldn’t be too hard. We need to ensure that everyone who comes into our buildings feel safe, and especially at a time like this.
“We here at the Friendship Circle have been saying to ourselves, This is something awful and ugly, but what we do as an organization can help to minimize if not eradicate it. We teach people to value each others’ differences.
“Keith Rothfus, a local congressman, was at the vigil on Sunday night. He’s Republican, and someone went up to him and vocally disagreed with his policies. My view is, Well he’s here, so obviously he supports our community. You’re not going to bully him into empathizing with you by yelling at him.
“Some people think that if he’s associated with their opposing political party they want nothing to do with him. My thoughts are, Well, hold on. Is that what we’re trying to promote here? Let’s try to sit down and think about how we could lessen that hate. You need to be able to talk to him in a way where he’ll listen to and hopefully respect your ideas. We all need to be respectful and kind and nice to each other.”