Reflections by VICPP member, Jamie Conrad —
I’ve lived in Alexandria, Virginia since 1985. But I’ve been deeply affected by the shootings in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh because, until 1965, when I was six years old, we lived practically around the corner from the Tree of Life Congregation. For my first three years, my parents rented the third floor of a triplex on Denniston Street half a block off Wilkins, and for the next three years, the first floor of a duplex two blocks down (with a very memorable house number: 1234).
Being in Squirrel Hill, my neighborhood was primarily Jewish. My next-door neighbors were Mr. Fink on one side and Mrs. Rubenstein on the other. My friend Evie Binstock lived down the street. My mother used to drive us to the suburbs to see Christmas decorations. But there was also an African-American family, the Thomases, downstairs from Mr. Fink. And an English family lived up the street. We all walked to the public elementary school several blocks away.
On its face, the neighborhood might seem to have been implausibly diverse, especially for the early 1960s. But it was Squirrel Hill – and typical for the area. The fact is that Squirrel Hill was then, and is now a uniquely diverse and tolerant place. And while we moved a few miles away to Edgewood when my parents could finally afford a house, Squirrel Hill continued to serve as the center of my psychological geography. It was where I bought records (Heads Together), saw old movies (the Guild), ate pizza (Mineo’s), and basically hung out. Most important, it was the home of the Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal church that, while not my home parish, was the center of regional diocesan youth activities. Those activities, and the friends I made there, literally got me through the stresses of adolescence. Of course, while most of the Pittsburgh churches fled the diocese when the national church consecrated an openly gay bishop, Redeemer stuck with the diocese and remains a progressive beacon.
I still get back to Squirrel Hill about once a year, whenever I’m back in the ‘Burgh. And the place has not changed much in the 40+ years since I went off to college. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me how personally I’ve taken the horrendous shootings there. But it does. It’s not just the disorienting degree of difference between a place that can be so accepting and a person who can be so hateful. It’s also partly that the shooter was motivated to attack the synagogue precisely because it was so accepting. He hated that HIAS was welcoming of refugees – “invaders.” Meanwhile, two days later, our President referred to the band of mothers, children and other poor Central Americans struggling through southern Mexico as “an invasion.”
It’s a sobering reminder that the message of loving our neighbors, of welcoming the stranger, that characterizes our major religions, isn’t self-evident to many. It’s going to take persistent work and witness to make progress. But, in the same way that light shines into darkness when you open a door, rather than the other way around, so the message will prevail. At least, we can have faith that it will, and put that faith into action.