Last week I arrived heartbroken and filled with grief in Pittsburgh, where I was born, raised and lived 10 years as an adult. I arrived two days after the massacre of 11 Jewish people celebrating the Sabbath at the Tree of Life Synagogue. This, and all hate crimes, quake me. All mass shootings quake me. This incident was a greater shock to my being; it struck my lifelong identity as a Jewish person who grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
A friend from kindergarten was leading services when the shooting began; she hid in a closet and lived. Two brothers we’d grown up with were killed; my brother and I attended their funerals. I sat with grieving friends and relatives, one devastated by the loss of her doctor, another feeling too traumatized to go to the funeral of her friend’s father, murdered at his synagogue. Some were motivated to wear Jewish Stars of David necklaces; others didn’t want anyone to know they were Jewish. The pain of this experience seems endless.
Meanwhile, the outreach and solidarity extended to the Pittsburgh Jewish community was remarkable in its immediacy, constancy and breadth. Right away, there were vigils in the heart of Squirrel Hill. The Steelers football and Penguins hockey teams modified their logos to create six pointed stars. People of all religions participated in a vigil overflowing with thousands of supporters. Store owners and the Pittsburgh Airport posted messages, as did the marquis of a movie theatre, and throughout Squirrel Hill, “PGH IS STRONGER THAN HATE,” “OUR HEARTS CRY FOR SHALOM,” and my favorite, #LOVETHYNEIGHBOR (NO EXCEPTIONS). The Juneau Jewish community arranged a gathering at Congregation Sukkat Shalom, attended by an overflow crowd of caring people standing in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors.
Pittsburgh and Juneau hold many parallels for me, and there are reasons I’ve called them both home for three decades. They are lush with trees. Both have water, mountains and beautiful trails. They’re friendly cities, and people are often kind. To be clear, I work at AWARE, Juneau’s domestic violence and sexual assault program. I know the harm people choose to wreak on others, of the abuses of power and control. My life’s work is to uplift people with healing and hope, to offer people another way, to stop the violence before it starts. I also work to better understand the injustices inflicted on oppressed people including Alaska Native people, by those in positions of power. It is because of my white privilege that I’ve been able to experience both Pittsburgh and Juneau as safer.
It was difficult for me to leave Pittsburgh and the comfort of like-minded and like-hearted grievers. I returned home to a stack of mail, including the biggest postcard the United States Postal Service allows. It began, “If you give Jesse Kiehl your vote… you may as well give him your wallet.” It has the picture of a man with a wad of $100 dollar bills he’s putting into his jacket. It’s black and red and white; it seems to be a harsh piece of anti-Semitic mail that the Republican Women of Juneau (RWJ) could not have sent at a worse time.
I felt furious and framed, hurt and heartbroken. Is this really the community culture the RWJ wants for us? We make choices almost every moment of every day. We’re also human, which means we make mistakes and can learn from them. Representatives of Juneau’s Jewish Community have asked to meet with the RWJ. I look forward to listening to them and understanding what they were thinking, as well as sharing the implications and the impact of the mailer. I hope that we will all meet with open minds and hearts, because reducing a person to stereotypes is an act of violence.
It doesn’t require a mass shooting for a city to claim STRONGER THAN HATE; it only takes citizens who want to bring our community together, who see safety and relationships as more important than winning or being right. The Republican Women of Juneau are my neighbors, and they’re stuck with me; I’m a #LOVETHYNEIGHBOR (NO EXCEPTIONS) believer, returned raw from the murder of 11 Pittsburgh Jews.
• Saralyn Tabachnick envisions a Juneau where people of all ages — across all cultures and lifestyles — enjoy rich, fulfilling and secure lives.