By Hannah Lebovits
To be a Jew is to be acutely aware of a long history of hatred and violence against our people. But being Jewish also means something different to every Jew. Some people say, “two Jews, three opinions.” I’d say, “two Jews, three views on what it means to be Jewish.” But for me, growing up in the Squirrel Hill Jewish community of Pittsburgh, the divisiveness that plagues many cultural and religious groups wasn’t apparent. I didn’t always realize this, but after living in other communities, I have come to see how very special my hometown—the place I return to regularly for comfort, love and some really good brisket—really is.
In many Jewish communities, the Orthodox portion of the community is culturally, religiously and sometimes even geographically separated from the non-Orthodox. Not so in Pittsburgh. The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is unique in its overlap between sects—Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. In fact, there is an interesting dynamic between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities that almost seems like a friendly game of tug-of-war. We pull each other towards achieving more, both culturally and in our religious practices. We have annual community events in our schools and synagogues/temples. The ideals of Tikkun Olam, Torah and Tefillah are shared among all groups. The same teachers are at a variety of day schools and Sunday programs. Youth activities invite members of every community to join. Jewish professionals of all types have ties to every community, and we dance at each other’s weddings and cry with each other at shiva.
That’s what I’ll be doing this week, following the horrible and senseless murders of eleven of my people— even though I am Orthodox, and not a member of any of the groups that regularly meet at Tree of Life.
I’ve been struggling with how to process this horrible tragedy, which is an attack on so much that is personal to me. One thing I keep returning to is the intentionality of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The ways in which the people, the built and natural environment, and the governing bodies work together to create a neighborhood that is unlike any other.
I didn’t realize how special Squirrel Hill was until I moved away—although my parents would say that their freezer and pantry would make the case that I never moved away at all. In fact, part of what makes Squirrel Hill so special is that even when you leave it, it never leaves you. As others have noted, Squirrel Hill is a model of inclusivity that has shaped the lives of countless people in every intersectional category you can find. It is still my home in so many ways—I was born and raised there, we return to visit my parents often, and my daughter was born a few blocks away, named in the community. So much of my life is tied to this place, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, the “urban shtetl” that I grew up in.
Many of my own childhood memories seem like clichés as I recount them now. Spending hours playing soccer with my Pakistani neighbors; taking the bus at twelve years old and not understanding why anyone would need a driver’s license; popping into a store on Murray Avenue to grab a twenty-five-cent bag of chips on my way home from school. These aren’t idealized revisions of my view on life. They are real memories. As kids, my friends and I sobbed when the bags of chips became thirty-five cents and we could no longer buy four for a dollar. We waited anxiously for the Squirrel Hill public library to reopen after renovations and tried to sound cool bashing the new place, even as we spent every afternoon there. We greeted people as we walked to shul each Shabbat, morning and heard “Good Shabbos” in return.
But these memories aren’t happenstance; they are signs of a neighborhood intentionally designed to foster relationships, inclusion and wellbeing. The neighborhood is predominantly mixed-use, and incredibly walkable, even despite the hills. In fact, walking is always encouraged because there are few massive public parking structures and the density of the area makes it more efficient to walk from shop to shop than to drive. The built environment and planning policies foster community. People are constantly on the street and talking to each other, wishing each other good morning and evening. The pace is slower; people take the time to sip their coffee at The Coffee Tree Roasters and other local businesses; they frequent the same small businesses every day or week. And when businesses aren’t doing well and look to raise their prices, people continue to shop there—sometimes even more frequently, to show their support for their friends.
I know that, like me, many people are struggling to find some way to make a difference following the tragedies of last week. My suggestion? Take Squirrel Hill as a model: destroy hate with intentional community building. Get out of your car and onto your street. Shop local, speak to local business owners and get to know them and their lives while sharing your own. Get involved in local politics and planning efforts to create more high-density, mixed-use communities. Talk to your neighbors every chance you get. Frequent your local libraries and get to know the librarians and the regulars. Create a strong community fabric in every way possible.
This week, the Jewish community is in mourning, sitting shiva for these precious souls. But we feel our community beside us. We are fortunate to be surrounded by neighbors who are genuinely heartbroken, and who are with us in our pain. This is possible because they know us, and we know them. I feel nauseated that the special community I grew up in has been violated by such a senseless act. But its magic remains, because we built it that way—and we will never let it fall.
Hannah Lebovits is a PhD student at Cleveland State University studying urban affairs and public administration. Hannah currently lives in Cleveland, OH with her husband and two children. She grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and returns home frequently (perhaps too frequently depending on who you ask).
Cover image: Looking down Murray Street in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo by Jon Dawson (CC-BY-ND 2.0).
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