Pittsburgh was my home for two years after we moved to the U.S. from Russia. Although it was very different from anything I’d ever experienced in Moscow−from its architecture, food, weather, and lifestyle, to the stubborn foreign language−one thing that stood out was its people.

See, people are friendly in Pittsburgh. They take the time to greet a stranger, ask how your day is, and genuinely wish you ‘Shabbat Shalom!’People are friendly in Pittsburgh

I remember the middle-aged crossing guard who noticed I wasn’t smiling and bothered to ask what was going on in school and why I didn’t look happy.

Well, what could I tell her? In Russia, where I grew up, it’s uncommon to smile at strangers. Historically, one never knew who was a traitor and who was a decent person, so people opened their hearts cautiously. But once trust was built, such friends became equal to family.

By the end of the week, the crossing guard noted that I had a beautiful smile. I had been disarmed.

Another thing that astonished me in Pittsburgh was the entrance doors. Made of wood and rarely secured with anything more than a wobbly, infrequently-used lock, it drove me nuts.
“But what if someone breaks into the house in the middle of the night?” I asked in bewilderment.
“Like a squirrel? It’s a quiet area, there is nothing to worry about…” was the typical answer.

Those fluffy squirrels jumped incessantly from one leafy tree to another—there were plenty to choose from! I loved watching them as I walked through the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill on my way to school.

Fascinated by the myriad synagogues and kosher and Judaica shops, I finally understood what it meant to be openly Jewish: not having to hide your Magen David necklace underneath layers of clothes, not turning back to make sure no one is following your yarmulke-wearing Dad…and so many more things it’s easy to take for granted when you grow up in a free country.

I felt like Harry Potter when he discovered the magical world of Diagon Alley where being a wizard was completely normal!

Soon after moving to Pittsburgh, I bought my first chanukia (menorah). It was designed to look like the Kotel. When the salesperson asked whether I wanted to pack it in colored or transparent wrapping, I didn’t think twice. I had finally begun to internalize that there was nothing to hide and so much to be proud of.

Pittsburgh…the city where I met extraordinary people who opened their homes and hearts to strangers, who volunteered at community centers, hospitals, and nursing homes, and shared their passion with everyone around them…

Each Friday, my fellow students and I boarded minivans and buses operated by volunteers and fanned out to aged care facilities around the city. It was part of the curriculum, and, more importantly, a vital component in establishing our value system.

I was “‘in charge” of the Russian-speaking seniors. Throughout the week, they wrote down the questions about Judaism they had been too afraid to ask under the Communism regime… I looked forward to these deep, philosophical conversations (and the cookies the residents shared with me!).

But for Mrs. Schulman, our math teacher, who was always busy assisting someone in the community, even this wasn’t enough. Late on Friday afternoons, very close to Shabbat, I would religiously follow her to another aged care facility where she helped a 103-year-old woman with Parkinson’s to light the Shabbat candles. Mrs. Schulman gently held her shaky hands, a twinkle of light illuminated the room, and together they covered their eyes and whispered the everlasting blessing, making this world a brighter place.

Visiting a Russian senior in the aged care facility.
Visiting a Russian senior in the aged care facility.

It’s been a while since I left Pittsburgh to discover Montreal, New York, and finally Melbourne where I now live. As so often happens, we tend to believe that no matter what happens in our own lives, the cities of our past remain the same. And then reality strikes when you least expect it.

On Sunday morning Melbourne time, I logged onto Facebook to find out about the Pittsburgh massacre. It was surreal; out of all places in the world, Pittsburgh seemed untouchable.

I couldn’t believe the shocking images of distressed people waiting for updates about their loved ones, and those of police storming The Tree of Life Synagogue—a place I had passed almost daily as a schoolgirl. As the number of victims grew, I frantically checked if my classmates, teachers, and friends in Pittsburgh were finally online.

There was no doubt at all as to the motivation behind the shooting: indiscriminate, vicious hatred. The attacker screamed “Death to all Jews,” but the year is 2018, not 1939.

It’s hard to comprehend that such things can happen in our times, in a free, It's hard to comprehend that such things can happen in our timesdemocratic country like the US. But if you think about it, Germany was also an educated, intelligent, progressive country with a huge Jewish population pre-World War II.

Several years ago, I had the honor of interviewing a sole Holocaust survivor. L. led a secluded life and, unlike the Russian-speaking seniors I had visited in Pittsburgh, had no interest in religious discussion.

Eventually, he shared his story with me.

L. grew up in Poland where his father was a distinguished rabbi and head of their synagogue. L. grew up, graduated from a prestigious yeshivah, married a beautiful young woman, and had a baby. And then the war broke out.

Like so many survivors, L. witnessed the unfathomable. His entire life was crushed in a single day when the Nazis locked down the synagogue where his family was praying and set the building on fire. Later on, they grabbed his 18-month-old son and ruthlessly smashed his head against the brick wall in front of his eyes.

Is there any way to move on from such immense pain and suffering? I doubt it. Do I have any right to judge his attitude towards G‑d and Judaism? Not for a second. All I can say is that L. was brave enough to start anew. He moved to Australia, married again, had children, and generously gave of his time to help other survivors.

We will never have all the answers; all we have are choices. Some will continue to blame the Jews, as they have done for thousands of years. After all, it’s easier to treat us as a scapegoat for all the wrongdoings out there than it is to fix the real issues. But others will use the opportunity to reach out, hold someone’s hand in a time of need, and contribute towards our collective goal of making this world a brighter place.

May the memory of 11 Jewish martyrs—Joyce Fienberg, David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Bernice Symon, Sylvan Symon, Rose Malinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger and Melvin Wax—who died in Pittsburgh for the “crime” of being Jewish, be a blessing.

And may we all find the strength to continue bringing light into the world.