There’s a popular yard sign in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
In bands of green and blue and yellow, it projects the same message in Spanish, English and Arabic:
“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
If the community had a motto, I think that might be it.
Though known for its high concentration of Jewish residents, the Pennsylvania locale is a multicultural crossroads.
That may have made it a target today when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue.Though the alleged culprit has been captured, details are still being uncovered. The death toll has yet to be tallied.
Unconfirmed reports state that he shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.
But I don’t believe that the Jewish community was his only target.
Or more precisely – it wasn’t just the Jewish part – it was the community that had grown up around it.
I know Squirrel Hill well.
I live close by. I grew up on those streets. I’ve been to services at that synagogue. I have family who are members.
Thankfully it seems that no one related to me was there this morning. But when victims names are released, I probably will know who they are.
I know this community.
I am an extended part of it.
And that’s something of which I am proud.
Just walk along Murray Avenue and you’ll see Indian, Italian, Jewish, African, Chinese – every nationality imaginable – offering the fruits of their culture for friendly commerce.
You’ll see Hasidic Jews in dark hats and flowing tzitzit walking next to women in colorful saris next to trans and lesbians, kids with every color skin playing together in harmony.
Whenever I want a good corned beef sandwich or a quality lox and bagel, I go there. Whenever I want a spicy curry or the freshest sushi or an authentic macaroon, that’s the place. If I want to hear a string quartet or a lecture from a visiting dignitary or even if I want to swim in a public pool, membership to the Jewish Community Center is open to all.
It’s like a few blocks of cosmopolitan life tucked away in a city more known for segregation. We have many ethnic neighborhoods but few where one culture flows so easily into another.
Heck. Even the Tree of Life Synagogue, itself, doesn’t serve one congregation. It serves three who all had services going on at different parts of the building this morning.
There’s just something very special about this place.
It’s where you can go to be yourself – in fact, you’re encouraged to be who you are and not conform to any particular norm. Yet in doing so, you’re somehow demonstrating unity.
Paradoxically, being you makes you one of us.
I think it may have been that sense of community that made Squirrel Hill, in general, and the Tree of Life Synagogue, in particular, a target.
The hate-filled person who attacked us today was terrified of that unity.
He was so frightened of disillusion, of losing his sense of self, that he had to end the lives of those who could do what he couldn’t.
It’s pathetic, really.
If your sense of self is only a negative, only opposition to someone else’s otherness, you really don’t have much self to lose.
If you define yourself by your hate, what are you?
Do you even really exist?
Most of us are very different.
We are complex assortments of personality – a family identity, a cultural heritage, a work persona, a spirituality, a sense of justice.
Communities like Squirrel Hill nurture this multifarious nature.
They welcome and celebrate difference.
I wish America was more like Squirrel Hill and not the other way around.
If this community’s normal was our national ideal, think of the country we would be living in!
Being different wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be cherished.
When meeting someone with an unfamiliar name, a heritage of which you were ignorant, a sexuality or gender identity of which you had little knowledge – your response wouldn’t be fear or discomfort. It would be a thrill of excitement that you are lucky enough to broaden your understanding of the many ways there are to be human.
It would be a country where no one grew up so stunted and afraid that the only solution they could imagine would be the death of others.
That’s the America I want to live in.
Squirrel Hill is stronger than this synagogue shooters hate.
I hope our country is, too.