By Abigail Natelson
Repair the World Atlanta Fellow 2019-20

This October, some things feel the same, and some different.  Many of us observe Yom Kippur as we have done since childhood.  Many of us honor the change of seasons and the harvest from within temporary outdoor dwellings or Sukkot.  This October, Repair the World reaches a milestone as a national organization and will celebrate 10 years of focusing our Jewish community on best practices in volunteer service.  Amidst all of these occasions, one stands out as painfully unlike the others: the first anniversary of the White Nationalist terror attack on Tree of Life Synagogue. One of our Atlanta Repair Fellows, Abigail Natelson, grew up in Pittsburgh and shares her recollection of the event with us below:

Almost a year ago, I penciled a note into my calendar under Saturday, October 27th: “Halloween party with friends, dressing up as characters from Shrek, Pitt plays Duke.” Pittsburgh was ready for this regular weekend of rest, fun, and for many, Shabbat.

On the morning of the 27th, I woke up before my alarm to a calm fall day, with time to relax and appreciate the quiet morning. After a few deep breaths, I was jolted from my state of serenity by the blaring sound of what I learned later to be nearly every vehicle in Pittsburgh’s emergency fleet racing down the boulevard perpendicular to my street. Not too unusual for the city, but it seems off. Minutes later, I received an alert from the University: “Shots fired at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Wilkins Ave. Police operations are ongoing. Avoid the Squirrel Hill/Shadyside area.” Tree of Life Or L’Simcha? Where we celebrated my camper’s Bat Mitzvah last weekend? Is there more than one Tree of Life in Pittsburgh? I knew there was not. 

Then the notifications on my phone arrived, and for weeks they did not relent. The phrase “active shooter” appeared. Is this not everyone’s worst nightmare? Along with the slew of Groupme and Facebook messages was a text from my mom in the suburbs of Pittsburgh: “Rabbi ended services early. Headed home.” Call mom. When she picked up, I asked why someone would shoot at the synagogue, and it was her who convinced me that he had entered the sacred space with a weapon and was targeting actual human beings. “6 people are dead.” Dead. I hadn’t seen this word yet. Right down the street. Our community is being killed. Before I had even understood the situation, people were already dead. I was crying as I felt my community collapse. 

For hours, I sat with friends and roommates, refreshing the news stories over and over. The next few days were an indistinguishable fog of vigils, abundant communal support, and realizations about the danger all targeted minorities face in the US.  Today, our fear of the possibility of weapons harming our community and our neighbors has not subsided. Given that, I wish to amplify an article by Ilana Kaufman that initiates a discussion on how to keep synagogues safe for our multi-racial Jewish community, acknowledging the challenges of traditional security measures.  Continuing this dialogue is critical. 

As the weekend of October 27th approaches, it brings both the season of Halloween costumes and a time of heightened anxiety for the Jewish community. I am hopeful that, amidst the haunting and traumatizing memory of that Shabbat, the Jewish community, especially my insurmountable Tree of Life and Pittsburgh family, will experience some measure of peace and joy from the community’s outpouring of radical love and support.