On the morning of Oct. 27, a lone gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue, located on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill. The alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, killed 11 people aged 54-97, and injured six. The Tree of Life massacre was one of the worst attacks on the Jewish American community in U.S. history, as well as being yet another mass shooting that American life has become synonymous with.
Squirrel Hill is a vibrant Jewish community, one of the most well-known for its culture in the United States. Moreover, the community is one of the most welcoming; many homes and local businesses display signs that read the words, “No matter where you’re from, we’re happy to have you as our neighbor” in multiple languages.
The attack began shortly after 9:45 a.m., when Bowers charged into the Saturday morning service. Police arrived on the scene around 10 a.m. and entered the building to find victims’ lifeless bodies and survivors hiding in fear. After a brief exchange of gunfire, Bowers surrendered.
Bowers now faces 29 federal charges, including ones that could result in the death penalty.
Just one mile down Shady Avenue from Tree of Life is Allderdice High School, the largest high school in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district with more than 1,400 students. It’s one of the more diverse student bodies in the district, and many students live very close to Tree of Life. Kenny Hardin, a senior defensive end who stars on Allderdice’s football team, was at the school preparing for his team’s City League championship game against Westinghouse, when he received a text message from his mother.
The unthinkable was happening—automatic gunfire was being heard by the Hardin family, who lives right across the street from Tree of Life.
“My family’s locked in the basement because the gun brawl was happening in front of my porch, literally in front of my house,” Kenny Hardin said in a text message that morning (Kenny Hardin provided the text message to the New Pittsburgh Courier). “There are police in my house sniping from my window.”
The football game was postponed until Oct. 30.
Meanwhile, Allderdice students quickly responded to the shooting with community-based action.
Just hours after the last shot was fired, a group of students began to plan. Among these students were Marina Godley-Fisher, Rebecca Glickman and Emily Pressman, all seniors at Allderdice who are of the Jewish faith. Meeting at a local coffee shop, the young women planned a vigil in the heart of Squirrel Hill, on the corner of Forbes and Murray, to be held that night. Godley-Fisher spoke to the New Pittsburgh Courier about how the violence had erupted a mere 500 feet from her home.
“I watched my street turn into a crime scene,” Godley-Fisher said. “Until 5:30 (p.m.) we made calls, confirmed speakers, asked businesses to donate candles, and found a microphone and speakers. Some of the higher people in the Jewish community wanted to wait, and didn’t support a meeting that day. I don’t know if we knew at that point, but something was telling us that we had to be together, as a community, that night.”
The vigil, which began at 6 p.m., held over 1,000 people as the young leaders sang traditional Havdalah songs (which are sung at the end of Sabbath) and gave powerful speeches that comforted the sobbing crowd. A light rain began to fall as the students concluded their speeches.
Then, a woman, who did not want to be identified, made the perfect comparison of the rainfall to the emotions felt by so many on this fateful day: “The tears that were had by all of Pittsburgh today.”
The community support did not end with the weekend. Dr. James McCoy, the principal at Allderdice who is beginning his second year at the school, made daily announcements in the week following the shooting, notifying students of the grief counselors that were available.
Gun violence is not a foreign subject to students at Allderdice. A week before the Tree of Life shooting, the school held an active-shooter drill, called ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate), where the students were met with a simulation of a school shooter.
Global Minds Initiative, an international nonprofit organization and club at Allderdice that aims to address cultural intolerance and create peaceful dialogues that support young immigrants, released the following statement on social media after the shooting: “Although our hearts were shattered on Saturday, we will not allow the anti-Semitic violence and hatred tear us down. In times marked so heavily by hate and intolerance, we must rise up, keep our heads high, and persevere. We call for healing and a continuation of the love that makes Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh welcoming and loving. We call for mourning and remembrance of the 11 beautiful souls that we lost.”
Global Minds was founded in Pittsburgh by Peyton Klein, now a junior at Allderdice. Klein is directly connected to Tree of Life; she worked at the front desk, buzzing people in for nearly two years, starting in 2015.
Her organization held an event at Allderdice on Oct. 30, where over 100 students met to write letters to politicians and the victims’ families, and created posters. There was also a moment of silence where students held 13 roses, 11 for the victims of the Tree of Life attack and two for the African Americans who were murdered at a Kroger supermarket just outside of Louisville, Ky., the week prior.
Students at Allderdice are calling for an end to gun violence. In 2017, the FBI reported 8,437 hate crimes in the U.S., up 54 percent from 2014. Some students believe the increased hatred is a result of President Donald Trump’s own hate speech that acts as a catalyst for violence.
The shooting at Tree of Life was a horrific event in a long-continued cycle of American violence, terrorism, and hatred. Despite this, people can find comfort in the love and support seen in the next generation. Allderdice High School is a microcosm of urban American youth who support one another despite socioeconomic differences.
(Gianna Griffin, a senior at Allderdice High School, is a New Pittsburgh Courier intern.)
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