By Abby Adelman
On October 27, 2018, 11 people were killed in an act of hatred in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, my home. Growing up as an active member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community and a camper at URJ Camp Harlam since 2011, I was taught to be proud rather than ashamed of my Judaism. Despite not living in the city, Squirrel Hill had always been a welcoming, cheerful place that I loved going to at least once a week. I loved walking around the town knowing almost everyone around me was Jewish, giving me a feeling that I have only felt at camp, NFTY, or in Israel. The Pittsburgh Jewish community is one like no other in that we are unified no matter whether a person is Jewish or not. Never in Pittsburgh had I seen true antisemitism or felt unsafe as a Jew, until this past October.
Mass shootings in the United States have sadly become more common to the point where we are becoming accustomed to it. This summer as a CIT, I sat on my friend Casey’s bed – a fellow CIT and a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student – as she recounted the horror that haunted her last February when a similar tragedy struck her high school. Talking to her, I felt sympathy for her and her classmates, but it was impossible for me to imagine something on this scale occurring in my hometown. But on that last Saturday of October, seeing the newscast and recognizing every building in the background gave me a surreal feeling because the tragedy that I never thought could happen was actually taking place in my own city.
The words that my mother shared with me on that morning were words that I never thought I would hear, “There is an active shooter in Tree of Life.” I froze. I wanted to cry but no tears would come out. I wanted to scream but my voice was gone. I did not know what to do. With four people already confirmed dead, I knew my community was undergoing something that would affect everyone for the rest of their lives. Throughout the day, I kept refreshing the news to hear if more information would be released. The number of casualties jumped from 4 to 7, to 8, to 10, to 11. Each time I saw the number increase I fell deeper into a hole, one of not knowing who from my community was gone and the impact it would have on me and my friends’ and family’s lives. Looking at the news, I saw the town I knew and loved so much, and a numbness overtook my body. I could not focus on anyone or anything other than those inside of the synagogue just blocks away from mine.
At first, I did not know what to do. I did not think that anyone or anything would be able to help me find comfort on that day. I then looked at my phone and saw dozens of texts from people within the Harlam community. I had gotten texts and calls from fellow CITs, past camp friends who I had not talked to in years, as well as Aaron Selkow, Harlam’s Executive Director. Throughout the following days, I would grasp the necklace I was wearing that said “18058” and I knew that everyone within that community had my back. Since I was 10 years old, camp has been the place I have felt more loved than anywhere in the world, and after the tragic events at Tree of Life, I have never felt more connected to that powerful spirit.
A few days after the shooting, I decided to visit Tree of Life. Walking alongside the building where 11 lives were stolen was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. I could not help but notice the hundreds of flowers and the piles of rocks placed on top of the Stars of David with the victims’ names written on them. This opened my eyes to the fact that in the wake of tragedy, people in Pittsburgh and throughout the world were going to respond with love and hope. I was inspired by seeing my camp friends writing letters at their schools to the families of the victims, people within my own school stepping up to help me sell bracelets that say, “Stronger Than Hate,” or people like Gracie Silverstein, a fellow CIT, selling almost 2,000 necklaces and donating the proceeds to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. I always had known camp was my home. But in the following days as I recalled the lessons I had been taught for years as a camper and a CIT and the support I received from the Harlam community, I was shown the strength that we have together that can withstand anything.
I encourage you to make a gift to our Harlam@60 campaign before the end of 2018 to ensure that Harlam can continue to grow and improve and ensure that feelings like these will sustain. Harlam is a special place where we are empowered to make change and support each other in order to create a more loving and just world.
Abby Adelman was a Gesher (CIT) participant in the summer of 2018. She also currently serves as the NFTY-PAR President.