When Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are both home

 

It’s like Whitefish Bay, but it’s not. It’s a place of tragedy but also a place of joy. It’s home, but so too is Milwaukee.

Local Pittsburghers are still reeling from the Tree of Life massacre, but fond memories of Squirrel Hill and its Jewish community there are forever cemented.

Joan Kazan, a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, was born and raised in Squirrel Hill. She grew up going to bar and bat mitzvahs at the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 Jewish worshipers were killed by a gunman this past Shabbat morning. Kazan married her husband, David, at Tree of Life in 1990.

“Great joy and fun and love and celebration is what Tree of Life will always be for me,” said Joan, interviewing via WhatsApp while on a trip in Israel. “I remember when we met with Rabbi (Alvin) Berkun before we got married. There was a huge sanctuary. Huge …. David joked and said you’re going to need a sandwich halfway down the aisle.”

They ended up using a smaller room in the massive, multi-level Tree of Life building.

Wisconsinites Mark Nagurka and his wife Anita, a Pittsburgh native who is now the business manager for Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale, once lived in Squirrel Hill together. They said they enjoyed being part of the close-knit and vibrant Jewish community there.

“It’s community. Everybody knows everybody. There are a lot of people who are walkers there. Maybe because it’s urban. Even if you don’t know their names, there are a lot of hellos,” said Mark, a former Carnegie Mellon professor who now is with Marquette University.

Local Pittsburghers say the Jewish community there is larger than Milwaukee’s, with a similar sense of community. They also remember Squirrel Hill as physically having some similarity to Whitefish Bay, with homes near a walkable area of shops and houses of worship.

Imagine that there’s the Jewish Community Center at the corner of Silver Spring Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard, recalled Andrea Schneider, who attended Hebrew school at the Tree of Life synagogue for several years.  Then you have Conservative and Reform congregations right there, plus the high school.

“Everything was in a very small contained area,” added Schneider, a Marquette Law School professor and Milwaukee Jewish Federation board member.

Though none of those interviewed personally know any of the 11 killed by the gunfire of an anti-Semitic assailant, they all have tangential connections that keep emotions lingering.

“We know somebody who was walking to the synagogue that morning. It’s one of those amazing timings of life,” Mark said.

“I still have friends in Pittsburgh,” Kazan said.

Schneider’s take-away is that we can’t sit on the sidelines.

“I think we all have a responsibility to raise our voices,” she said. “We need to do that more than ever.”