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After the Pittsburgh shooting 5 years ago, my community was shattered. Then something unexpected happened

Opinion by Michael Bernstein

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Michael Bernstein is the chair of the interim governance committee of the reimagined Tree of Life, a new national institution dedicated to uprooting antisemitism. The views in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN. 

“Is that hammering from next door?” I asked my son, who was 16 at the time, after four sharp bangs pierced the air near our home in Pittsburgh. It was October 27, 2018.

“I think those were gunshots,” was the answer I was utterly unprepared for.

Gunfire seemed unlikely: Our neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill section had always been a redoubt of safety and calm. Almost immediately though, the blaring of police sirens confirmed my son’s assessment. And within a very short time, the full scope of the tragic events were known: Eleven Jews had just been massacred nearby at the Tree of Life synagogue while worshiping, simply for being Jewish.

When I first heard the news of a Hamas attack on October 7, I had a sick feeling: a visceral recognition of the trauma of violence and increasing horror as the numbers of those killed, wounded and taken captive steadily rose. Just weeks before the fifth commemoration of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life building, Israel suffered a massacre of unimaginable proportions.

As I tried to leave my house during the synagogue attack, a police officer yelled at me to get back inside — the shooter was in the Tree of Life, a mere hundred feet away. Memories of that harrowing event came back to me as I learned about the attacks in Israel this month, where whole communities did their best to find safety inside their homes, but instead had their lives destroyed by gunfire.

As the Tree of Life shooting tragedy unfolded, and in its immediate aftermath, I received a flood of phone calls and texts: “Are you okay?” “Where are you?”

As is true now for so many thousands of Israelis who lived through the horror of the Hamas attack, my family and I weren’t injured. But as news reports flashed terrifying images and the texts and calls continued to pour in, we had to acknowledge that no, we were not okay. Today, I read the news out of Israel and know only too well: They are not okay either.

When the shooter was found guilty of 63 counts of murder this past June, it felt like a very dark chapter had been closed which allowed us to move forward in the work of honoring our loved ones through rebuilding. Many of the survivors and victims’ families told me that not only did the trial provide closure for them, but that it reaffirmed that our city, legal system and society rightfully saw the killing of Jews as actions to be punished by the full extent of the law.

Then came the Hamas attack, the brutal killing, kidnapping and harming of innocent people, simply for being Jewish or perceived as being Jewish. The worst attack on Jewish people anywhere since the Holocaust reopened communal wounds.

Just as the Jews of Pittsburgh did five years ago, the Jews of Israel and around the world need our allies to hold us in their arms. As in 2018, we need our leaders to lead. Many have risen to the occasion: President Joe Biden’s words and actions have made clear that the barbarism committed by Hamas should shock us all. However, some appear confused, or worse, supportive of the slaughter of innocent people. We who have experienced the consequences when harmful rhetoric turns into harmful action are alarmed.

Here in Pittsburgh, we’re rebuilding Tree of Life into a new institution focused on uprooting antisemitism and other forms of identity-based hate while honoring the memory of those taken from us. Our experience reinforces the need to work across differences to create the belonging we seek.

We know how harmful rhetoric, legitimized by those in positions of authority, can lead to violence and death. While criticism of Israeli policies and empathy for the plight of the Palestinian people is appropriate and often justified, cheering the death of any people — especially innocent civilians — is appalling and unacceptable. When directed against the Jews of Israel, we recognize the double-standard for what it is: antisemitism, the othering, dehumanization, and celebration of the death of Jews.

Make no mistake, as the Israel-Hamas war unfolds, harmful rhetoric has already turned into harmful action, right here in the United States: Jews and Jewish institutions have been threatened with violence; a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was murdered, his mother severely wounded. For all our sakes, we must do better.

All of this is heartbreaking and sobering. But amid all the sorrow of recent weeks, there is reason to be hopeful.

In the days following the attack on Tree of Life — the worst antisemitic attack ever on American soil — Jewish Pittsburghers experienced something exceedingly rare in our people’s history: Our neighbors came out to collectively hold us in their arms.

The leader of the local Muslim community raised enough funds to pay for all the funerals. Christian clergy hosted services for those displaced by the shooting. Those were just two among many beautiful gestures. Pittsburghers responded to the murders of 11 Jews as a crime against the entire city, against humanity. We know firsthand that empathy, courage and connection can truly break through hate.

As we mark the fifth commemoration of the Tree of Life tragedy this week, let’s remember the victims and our grief. But let’s also remember the beauty of the love, solidarity, and relationships we felt in the aftermath.

We must call out violence, hate and hypocrisy wherever it appears. Courage, empathy, and solidarity are required as well as knowing the difference between what is right and what may be expedient. Tree of Life will be a beacon of light and hope as we navigate this journey. The work isn’t easy, but together we can help heal this broken world.

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