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Tragic parallels: New Zealand and Pittsburgh houses of worship suffer similar heartache

Image: Tree of Life
A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 29, 2018. Copyright Matt Rourke AP file
Copyright Matt Rourke AP file
By Phil McCausland with NBC News U.S. News
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"It's actual heartache that people have so much hate for who you are. That they hate everyone you know — people who are wonderful people," one Pittsburgh Jewish teen said.


Crocheted Stars of David still flutter in the wind outside Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in remembrance of the 11 congregants killed only four months ago in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. The murders were allegedly committed by a man who expressed his hatred of migrants and a desire to kill Jews.

Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community on Friday relived the trauma of that late-October shooting when a gunman — described as a "right-wing extremist" — attacked two mosques in New Zealand Friday and gunned down 49 people.

The suspect accused of carrying out the attack in New Zealand appeared to have shared a manifesto before the shooting that detailed a white-supremacist worldview that seemed to parallel that of the man who is suspected of killing 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh — an similarity that did not go unnoticed.

"It hurts in the middle of your chest right above your sternum," said Cody Murphy, 18, a Jewish teen who pulled together a unity rally hours after the October shooting in Squirrel Hill. "It's actual heartache that people have so much hate for who you are. That they hate everyone you know — people who are wonderful people. And then you hear that they're worthless, that you're worthless. I'm not scared anymore. I'm just tired."

The massacre in New Zealand is the first mass shooting at a house of worship since the Tree of Life congregation was targeted. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who leads the Tree of Life synagogue, said he and his congregation are still coming to terms with another attack on a religious group and house of worship.

Hours before Friday night services, Myers said he had scrapped his sermon in light of the latest news. With many people from journalists to congregants seeking him out for answers, Myers said he just hoped that "God gives me some divine inspiration to say the right thing."

His greatest wish remained, however, that people did not fear worshiping on Friday night — no matter their faith. That's why, immediately after the New Zealand attack, Myers said he reached out to his counterpart at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which had been immensely supportive of the Jewish community in the days after their own tragedy.

"We can't let fear encompass our deep abiding faith because we then let those who terrorize us win and that can never ever happen," Myers said.

Those are principles that Steffi Biersdorff-Wright, the young adult chair at Temple Sinai, another synagogue in Squirrel Hill, tries to teach to the members of her third- and fourth-grade worship study group — standing in solidarity with each other, as well as others who aren't like them.

But she said it's a conversation that is challenged by these attacks because in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, some of her students asked why people didn't like Jews or expressed a fear of being Jewish.

Biersdorff-Wright said she has struggled with fear herself when teaching in the synagogue.

"For a while, I had to sit with having a view of the doorway," she said. "As a teacher, I have to think about those things. I don't feel safe in my own place of worship. If something like that happened in my synagogue, how would I protect them?"

Adam Hertzman, the director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which is raising money for New Zealand's victims, said that the Squirrel Hill community still struggles with that concept of safety.

"As we learned again today, there are sadly crazy hateful people even in the most peaceful of communities," Hertzman said. "I know that even though Pittsburgh is very safe, people feel scared whenever they hear about an attack like this because the memory of last year is still so raw."

But Hertzman said the community remains vigilant and has added security measures to stymie a similar attack in future.

And while fear lingers after these events, it is also an opportunity to share love and show that the country and the world stand against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy — which President Donald Trump claimed is not a rising threat — and work to "silence those voices that are spreading violence and intolerance," Biersdorff-Wright said.

"It sucks that this is our new reality," she added, "but I hope the people in New Zealand know that the people here in Pittsburgh, myself included, are here for them and we support and love them. I know what we are feeling right now is raw, but I know that in these hard times I can stand in solidarity with others and we can take care of each other."

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