Today marks the fourth anniversary of the horrific attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One man, fueled by the racist and antisemitic zeitgeist in the United States, entered the synagogue during Shabbat services on October 27, 2018, and killed 11 people (including Holocaust survivors), wounded six others and traumatized a community in the worst attack on Jewish Americans in the nation’s history.
Last night, a documentary on the tragedy premiered on HBO (and is now available for streaming on HBO Max). A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting is directed by producer/documentarian Trish Adlesic, who was visiting her Jewish father in Pittsburgh the day of the attack and began filming around the area immediately. She went on to spend three years conducting in-depth interviews with survivors and victims’ families, choosing to focus on their experiences rather than on the murderer (whose trial, incidentally, is expected to take place next spring).
Soon after the mass shooting, Moment Editor-in-Chief Nadine Epstein and 14 other editors of major Jewish-American publications signed a joint editorial declaring, in part: “We are all Jews. Let this horrific massacre be a moment of redemption as well as grieving. Let us argue with each other as Hillel argued with Shammai—with civility. Let us acknowledge our common humanity with other Americans who have been subject to unconscionable violence, too.” In the January 2019 issue, the “Ask the Rabbis” feature sought insights into how the massacre had changed Jewish life in their communities. Sadness, fear and anger mixed with resiliency, unity and love.
Writing several months after the Tree of Life attack, Epstein noted that on that late October day in 2018, we were in the run-up to a midterm election. “Pre-election periods are times when weak or stressed democracies with troubled civic discourse are particularly vulnerable to violence,” she said. “Although we may not be accustomed to thinking of our democracy as weak and stressed, it is.” Here we are, four years later, with another contentious midterm election looming. Moreover, at a moment when antisemitic tropes and sentiments have once again burst into the collective consciousness (the Daily Beast titled its review, “‘A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting’ Is the Documentary Kanye West Needs to See”), the timing of Adlesic’s film is ripe. It reminds us of who was lost, of what others survived, and of the ongoing imperative not only to value the lives of those around us but to call out those who endanger those lives.