Carnegie Mellon a week after the Tree of Life shooting
Jacob Meyers woke up on what he thought would be a typical Saturday morning. But instead, Meyers, a sophomore in Dietrich College, spent the next three hours on his phone, replying to an outpouring of messages from family and friends asking if he was safe as the news of the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue spread. Meyers was in his room, grappling with this hateful and deadly attack on his community.
Jane Bernstein, professor of English, was running late to an event on campus when she passed the police barrier on Wilkins Avenue, thinking it was some city issue. When she arrived on campus and received a text from her husband, who was in Brazil at the time, she knew something was wrong. It wasn’t until later that she saw the news.
The first thing Jessica Wang heard when she woke up was sirens. A sophomore civil engineering major, Wang heard the wails rushing past her window but she wasn’t able to put two and two together until she checked her Facebook notifications and read the frantic messages of her friends. Her first reaction was panic and fear, then the pressing need to stay where she was: in her room.
The tragedy on Saturday, Oct. 27 in Squirrel Hill has left the families of the 11 innocent victims, the Jewish community in Squirrel Hill, and the city of Pittsburgh grieving in its wake. The members of the Carnegie Mellon University community feel the shock, sorrow, and anger over the events, and the same pressing question of what we do now.
As the president of Chabad of Carnegie Mellon University, a Jewish organization for students, Meyers attended an emergency meeting with the two other Jewish organizations on campus, the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. The group organized the university gathering last Monday, and decided to paint the fence in remembrance and acknowledgment.
The fence is painted with a simple design. Both sides are black, with two subtle Jewish stars on the front and white handprints on the back. For Meyers, the design represents the duality of the horror and fear of the incident and the beauty and love of the community.
“The front and back of the fence reflect for me the experience that I’ve had this past week, where I’ve been scared and I’ve been anxious, but I’ve also been overwhelmed with love,” Meyers said in an interview. “I think you can see that in the fence. It’s really beautiful.”
The tragedy didn’t process in Bernstein’s mind until Sunday morning. She took a detour to Wilkins Avenue and drove past the synagogue, and that’s when it registered for her. She has been a member of Carnegie Mellon University since 1991 and has personal connections with the Tree of Life synagogue. Her daughter took lessons there, and she was acquainted with two of the victims. Though she is not religious, her Jewish background is an important part of her identity.
“I’m not religious, but I’m very, very culturally Jewish,” she said. “I identify with the culture and all the secular values of Judaism. I am to the world unaffiliated, but in my heart, I’m not. I feel this need to be part of this community in some way.”
Wang is not directly connected to the Tree of Life synagogue or the Jewish community, but as a member of the Carnegie Mellon University and general Pittsburgh communities, she feels forever impacted by the tragedy. She feels the sadness that we all feel after something so terrible, but she also feels the shock and fear of the reality that there are people in the world who feel hate for others because of their ethnicity or their faith.
She has also observed that, although the community is grieving, there is also a sense that at some point, they have to move on.
“When the [school] week started, it was like forget about it and move on,” Wang said in an interview. “I feel kind of removed from it—I think I’m removing myself. But I feel like we need to do more than just reference it.”
Bernstein has also seen this need to detach oneself in the face of tragedy. It is human nature, and turning away may not be necessarily a wrong action, but if one doesn’t hold onto it, then there is a problem.
“After the outpouring of emotion, there’s this tremendous silence,” she said. “In turning away, if there’s any connection with anyone who’s survived in anything, [it’s] being mindful of how lonely it is a month later, and two months later, and three months later. We’ve turned away, as we should, but it’s just that’s the really hard part, what comes much later.”
Since last Saturday, one of the biggest questions people are asking is, “What do I do now?” or “How can I do something?”
Meyers has been active in fundraising events benefiting the Tree of Life synagogue and its congregants, but in the aftermath of this tragedy, he is looking inward at himself and taking this time to reaffirm and rededicate himself to his faith. He made the decision to wear a yarmulke for the week after and has focused on bringing light into the darkness of this experience.
“For me, the call to action is a religious thing, and it’s a spiritual thing,” Meyers said. “Now, more than ever, I’m proud to be Jewish and I want people to know that I’m Jewish, and in the face of anti-Semitism and in the face of tragedy, [I’m] more proud than ever to be Jewish.”
Wang sees this as an opportunity for Pittsburgh to do something while the world’s eyes are directed on the city. She doesn’t know what, but she does know one thing: “I don’t want to move on from this moment.”
One potential response that some in the community have encouraged is voting this coming Tuesday, Nov. 6. In the past week, posters popped up along the Cut reminding everyone to vote, and speakers at most of the remembrance events hosted this week asked onlookers to find an outlet for their grief at the polls.
“I do believe strongly that the rhetoric we hear from the President is just flaming all these isolated angry people and giving permission for all this hate to be expressed and manifested,” Bernstein said. “Sometimes the ‘take action’ piece doesn’t happen immediately, it happens in a change—getting out of being complacent…That every voice counts, every vote counts, every effort counts, and it’s time to be heard.”
The Jewish idea of tikkun olam encapsulates this feeling. It can be translated to “heal the world,” and is something Bernstein deeply believes in.
“You can’t change everything, and you can’t be overwhelmed and think it’s too much…You choose to really look at something closely and do your part and tikkun olam.”