I want to tell you what it is like when your neighborhood becomes the scene of a mass murder.
The first thing you should know is that when your phone pings with a text from your youngest sister saying, “There is a shooter at tree of life,” your brain will insist that it is not true, that it is a hoax.
But your fingers will write back immediately, unthinking: “is dad there.”
Your mouth will turn to cotton while you wait for your mom to confirm that your father, who goes to one of Squirrel Hill’s synagogues every Shabbat morning, was not in the building.
Then another of your sisters will send a link to the police scanner and you will listen as the calls come in from the scene. You hear an officer report that the shooter declared he wants to “kill all the Jews.” He has hit officers. “Shots fired. Shots fired. Shots fired.”
You will cancel all your plans and book a flight home. Before you are even on the plane you will start to hear rumors — a couple has been killed, a doctor. You will wonder which families in your neighborhood will be shattered.
The numbness will break only when you find out that Cecil Rosenthal — the intellectually disabled, gentle giant of a man your mother has known since grade school — was murdered along with his brother, David. You will picture him as a proud usher standing in the entrance to services, and you will wonder if he greeted the killer, too. And you will weep.
When an anti-Semitic murderer mows down Jews in the synagogue where you became a bat mitzvah, you might find yourself in the sanctuary again. But instead of family and friends, the sanctuary is host to a crew of volunteers — the chevra kadisha — who will spend the week cleaning up every drop of blood because, according to Jewish tradition, each part of the body must be sanctified in death and so buried.
Daniel Wasserman, the rabbi of a local Orthodox synagogue who also runs a burial society, will be there, but so will an F.B.I. agent named Nicholas Boshears. You’ll look at the ark, which contains the Torah that you read from at 13, and you’ll think back to your terrible haircut and wonder why you were obsessed with wearing a suit rather than a dress and the fog of your memory will be sliced by the words “Because of the ballistics involved ….”
Suddenly you will notice that people from the F.B.I. dressed in white coveralls are venturing to the part of the building that is now called “the crime scene.” The place where there are hundreds of shell casings. The place where there are rivers of blood that are beginning to dry.
You will watch as the rabbi hugs the man from the F.B.I. and you will see that the FB.I. agent is crying and notice that you are crying, too.
When a terrorist comes to your hometown, you might sit, days later, with Rabbi Wasserman as he tells you that “unless someone is a soldier in a war zone, I defy anyone to tell me they’ve seen what I just saw.” He will tell you that he saw Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who were married in that synagogue, dead in each other’s arms. He will tell you that he saw a piece of a person’s skull and that he knew who it was because he recognized their hair.
And when you ask how he’s feeling, he will tell you that he can’t answer that yet. That he has to wait to break down until after he has helped bury the remaining dead.
When your hometown becomes the site of a mass murder, familiar places will look like photo negatives.The Jewish Community Center where you went to preschool and swim team will become a mourning tent where your best friend’s mother, a social worker, is volunteering her counseling services along with dozens of others.
The basketball court where you were the worst player on every team will become an overflow room where young and old, black and white, are crowded onto bleachers watching a live stream of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz’s funeral.
When a terrorist comes to your town, it will become a cable news circus. Anchors with glossy hair and dirty boots will report on a peaceful, respectful protest of the president as if it’s a riot. Your dad might show up on “Anderson Cooper.” Your mom might make chili for reporters.
When a terrorist comes to your town, you should be prepared for the copycats. You might wake up a few days after the attack to your mother shouting: “Get up. Someone has a gun in Casey’s school.”
And you will throw on your pants and race down to Colfax Elementary School, where one of your sisters is a beloved teacher. She will be on lockdown on the second floor of the building with her fourth-grade class. Police with dogs will circle the building. And her husband, a firefighter, might show up with his gun. Crying parents will start to gather across the street. One will be wearing pumpkin-patterned leggings and you might realize it’s Halloween.
Later your sister will tell you that the kids all followed the safety protocol during what thankfully turned out to be a false alarm. This includes fashioning “weapons” to throw at a man with an automatic weapon. A boy with a broken leg held up his crutch. Another had a peanut butter jar. Another wielded a bottle of Purell. Your sister will tell you that she was crouched by her desk, choking back tears while whispering to the kids that they were doing such a good job.
If you are lucky, when a terrorist comes to your town, you will bear witness to some of this country’s better angels.
Better angels like the father who walked down the block outside of Tree of Life as he calmly explained to his young son: “They’re trying to tell people that they are coming to invade our country. And it’s just not true.”
Better angels like Wasi Mohamed, the young executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who stood up and said if what you need is “people outside your next service protecting you, let us know. We’ll be there.” He said that in making this offer he was only repaying a favor: “That was the same offer made to me by this community after this election happened that was so negative and the spike in hate crimes against Muslims.”
Better angels like the sisters Alisa Fall and Melanie Weisbord, who spent Sunday night doing shmira — guarding the body of one of the victims so that, in keeping with Jewish custom, the person would never be alone.
Better angels like Brett Keisel, the Pittsburgh Steeler who helped carry the coffin of David Rosenthal.
Better angels like Nina Butler, who delivered quarts of homemade chicken soup to a SWAT officer who took seven bullets and was healing from his wounds in the hospital.
Better angels like Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who watched his congregants be executed and then found a way to represent his community to the world with dignity.
Better angels like Michael Sampson, who showed up with a giant Israeli flag, his wife, Leslie, and his two kids to join the protest. His 11-year-old son, Jordan, will tell you: “We’re here because hate came to what should be a safe space. And it should not be tolerated.”
Better angels like the Rev. Eric Manning of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., who knows what it is like to go through such a massacre and who showed up to speak on Friday at the funeral of Rose Mallinger.
But you will also wonder quietly to yourself if these better angels will be enough to stop the threats against communities like yours from multiplying.
What happened in my neighborhood might seem like a nightmare or an illness — something to be endured until, in time, it passes. That’s how it has seemed to me. But to those who have spent their lives in places like Karachi or Aleppo, the things Pittsburgh Jews take for granted — our freedom from violence and fear — are nothing more than pipe dreams.
When your hometown in Western Pennsylvania becomes the scene of mass murder, you know that the distance separating their reality from ours can be made tissue thin
Bari Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section. Photographs by Damon Winter.