“We fought, we won, let’s eat.”
The three-part saying is somewhat of a rallying cry in the Jewish community, said Ben Slesinger, a senior criminal justice major who returned to his home in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to share a Thanksgiving meal with his family last week.
The holiday marked his first time in the area since August, and the first time Slesinger, who is Jewish, saw his town in the aftermath of the tragedy at the Tree of Life Congregation, where a gunman killed 11 people and injured six others last month.
“We’re always going to come through in the face of hatred and anti-Semitism just because we know how,” Slesinger said.
“We have, unfortunately, too much experience knowing how to combat people that hate,” he added, noting the long history of persecution against Jewish people.
Slesinger attended and continues to attend Temple Sinai, a synagogue about one mile from Tree of Life. His former memories of the synagogue were of positive events like attending his friends’ Bar mitzvahs — “momentous, joyous occasions,” he said.
“I’ve walked those streets,” Slesinger said, “I’ve been in that sanctuary. My idea of that synagogue will just…it will never be the same.”
When Slesinger first heard about the shooting, he was eating breakfast in Morgan Hall. His dad called him with the news that an armed gunman had entered Tree of Life and said he would share updates as he learned more.
“I really didn’t know how to react,” Slesinger said. “As the day progressed and we started to find out more information, I realized that the possibility of [a victim] being one of my friends, one of my relatives, was relatively high… so I went into panic mode.”
Slesinger then called all of his friends and relatives he knew in the area. While he is lucky none of his direct acquaintances were victims of the shooting, he felt the same hurt, pain, grief and anger as if he had known the people who were, he said.
Driving by the synagogue during fall break, he said these emotions flooded back.
Slesinger delivered mitzvahs to the Tree of Life community when he returned, as part of the nationwide campaign #Mitzvah4Pittsburgh. People wrote down mitzvah’s — good deeds — on small slips of paper to give to Tree of Life. Slesinger was in charge of mitzvahs from contributors at Temple.
He is not the only member of Temple’s Jewish community that has taken it upon himself to respond to this tragedy through good works.
Susan Becker, the director of Jewish Life Director at Hillel at Temple, commended students for taking the initiative to organize a vigil at the Bell Tower on Oct. 30. Nearly 200 people paid their respects to the 11 victims of the shooting.
“They didn’t want to just go to other things in the community,” said Becker, who mentioned vigils on Broad Street and in Rittenhouse Square. “They wanted to build something in this community.”
Ben Herstig, a freshman music education major, was one of the main organizers of the vigil at the Bell Tower. Herstig was born in Squirrel Hill and his family attended the Tree of Life Congregation until they moved to Minnesota when he was about 4 years old.
“When I heard about the shooting, I needed to do something,” Herstig said.
To take action, he and about 12 other students, including Slessinger and freshman English major Valerie Levy, organized the vigil. The group met up on Oct. 29 to come up with ideas and the vigil took place the following evening.
“There was no practicing or anything,” Herstig said. “It was not easy, but it happened.”
“It was important to bring the issue onto campus because the Jewish population is so small,” said Levy, whose home synagogue is in Kensington, Maryland. “If we held this big vigil, it might make people who aren’t Jewish aware of how this affects people in general.”
She added that while it was great to see people attend the vigil, she feels support has since dwindled.
The most important thing for Jewish students is to continue to stay open and visible, Levy said. Levy is on the Shabbat and Holidays board of Hillel at Temple, which organizes Friday night Shabbat dinners, events and educational programming.
Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, which the Hillel Center observes each Friday night with a service and communal meal. Jewish community members and allies observed a “Solidarity Shabbat” on Nov. 2 after the shooting.
Becker, who worked at a synagogue in New Jersey for three years before coming to Temple, said this is the first major tragedy she experienced and added that the shooting affected both staff members and students.
“When we’re here at work, we’re ‘on,’” she said. “It’s important that we all take the time to care for ourselves outside of work too. …That first Monday back, we were all still so shocked.”
“It was still hard to process, but we had to be there for everybody else,” she added.
The tragedy affects the entire Jewish community — not just people from Squirrel Hill, Slessinger said.
“It could have been a synagogue in Nevada,” Slesinger said. “It could have been a synagogue in D.C. [Even if] it didn’t come from your hometown, it was against your people.”
“It’s not just a Jewish thing,” he added. “It’s a humanity thing.”