Oppenheimer Explores the Healing of Squirrel Hill, Pa.

Nov. 9 marked 83 years since Nazi paramilitary forces and other German civilians carried out a deadly attack on Jewish people in pre-World War II Germany. Events like the infamous “Night of Broken Glass,” known as Kristallnacht, are not too foreign in today’s world, according to Ruth Langer, a professor of Jewish studies in the Boston College theology department.

“It’s very easy to feel that such events would never happen today and certainly not in America,” Langer said. “But recent years have seen attacks on American minorities against churches of the African American community and also explicitly anti-semitic attacks on synagogues.” 

In commemoration of Kristallnacht, former Corcoran Chair Mark Oppenheimer spoke about his newest book, Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, at a lecture on Tuesday.

Oppenheimer drew connections between Kristallnacht and the Tree of Life shooting, a deadly attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead in October 2018. Oppenheimer’s new book explores what happened to the Squirrel Hill  neighborhood, which is home to the synagogue, in the wake of the national tragedy.  

Langer, the interim director for the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, spoke about her personal connections to Squirrel Hill. In fact, it’s the neighborhood Langer grew up in.

“Today’s program focuses on a shooting that occurred three years ago in my hometown, in Pittsburgh, in a neighborhood in which I grew up—Squirrel Hill—at a synagogue a few blocks from the childhood homes of my parents and our speaker’s father,” Langer said.

Squirrel Hill is a strong Jewish community, according to Oppenheimer.

“I was very curious about what it would mean for the worst thing that could happen to a Jewish community to happen to one of the best Jewish communities,” he said. 

Oppenheimer’s book examines the Squirrel Hill community through a variety of perspectives, he said.

“The book I wrote really is a panoramic and kaleidoscopic look at Squirrel Hill from the point of view of clergy, Jews, non-Jews, challah bakers, trauma therapists, trauma dogs, human, animal, everything over the course of a year,” he said 

The most lucrative fundraiser in reparative efforts, according to Oppenheimer, was Shay Khatiri, an Iranian immigrant.

“[Khatiri] heard what had happened, so he went to his coffee shop and went on to open up a fund,” he said. “That fund page was retweeted by [CNN] anchorman Jake Tapper and other people and it kind of circled the globe, and he ended up within a week raising something like a million and a half dollars for the victims.”

Through stories like Khatiri’s, the book highlights the difficult conversations that occur in healing communities after attacks. The new book, he said, is about how communities rally after terrible events.

“Ultimately, to me, this book is about these little stories that really make up the bigger story of how a neighborhood is an organism and comes through something like this and not only survives but in some ways thrive,” Oppenheimer said. 

Oppenheimer said mass shootings like the Tree of Life tragedy create waves of consequences. 

“[A mass shooting is] a lot of things,” he said. “It’s a terror and horror that goes on for people who can’t forget … But so too do these extraordinary ripples and emanations. So too does the Muslim exchange student raise over a million dollars for the Jews.” 

Photo Courtesy of Event 

November 14, 2021