“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must–at that moment–become the center of the universe.”—Eli Wiesel.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel (1928-2016) would no doubt applaud filmmaker Trish Adlesic’s mission to return to the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil. Her latest film, A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, revisits the massacre that shocked the world and devastated Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill spiritual community on October 27, 2018. Eleven elderly congregants were killed during Saturday morning services at the Tree of Life synagogue that day by a 46-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle, multiple hand guns and a virulent anti-Semitic social media footprint. Six other victims, including four police officers, were badly wounded as well.
Ms. Adlesic’s 80-minute documentary, A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, October 26, 2022, 9:00-10:20 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for repeat screenings in the days and weeks ahead, and HBO Max for streaming.)
The alleged shooter, Robert D. Bowers, is not the focus here. The film’s Emmy® Award-winning director turns her camera instead on the shooter’s victims… the ones who lived and those who died and are sorely missed by family and friends.
“My brother walked into the building that day. That’s the last time I saw him alive,” recalls one Tree of Life congregant.
Survivors continue to grapple with horrific memories of that day. They ask compelling questions that don’t seem to have definitive answers. Why did they survive, when their moms, brothers and best friends were fatally wounded in the seats next to them? How do you make sense of someone who walks into a house of worship on the Sabbath–fueled by the slur “all the Jews must die”– and freely annihilates senior citizens in prayer with a weapon that belongs on a battlefield?
Two brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal, whose learning disabilities and childlike innocence did not deter them from active participation in worship services were lost that day. Their elderly parents and sisters poignantly recall the brothers’ joy and pride at being able to assist with services each week.
Coping with grief, PTSD, thoughts of retribution and revenge, justice and forgiveness not only impacted the Tree of Life survivors and their families. Wasi Mohamed, the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Senior Policy Officer, reflects on the community’s interfaith responsibilities and efforts to help. And those who suffered at the hands of homegrown terrorists throughout the U.S. also stepped up to the plate.
The local Muslim community raised $250,000 to help defray the victims’ burial and medical costs. Survivors of the Parkland and Charleston shootings counseled Tree of Life survivors and their families; and artwork from children representing the Parkland, Columbine and Newtown massacres helped to soften the pain.
The most pressing and frightening question raised by the film remains unanswered. As we mark the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting, why are the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents at an all-time high in this country? What or who is driving this surge?
The film closes with these startling statistics: “Since 2010, there have been 15,000 religious-based hate crimes in the U.S. Over 50% have been against Jews. In 2021, there were over 2,717 reported anti-Semitic incidents in the U. S. Jews make up 3% of the U.S. population.”
If you haven’t already seen Ken Burns’, Lynn Novick’s and Sarah Botstein’s timely three-part PBS documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, I suggest you make sure not to miss it. It brilliantly details the origins and shocking swell of anti-Semitism during the 20th century, with clear implications for today. You can read my coverage of The U.S. and the Holocaust here in FrontRowCenter @ http://www.judithtrojan.com/2022/09/18/
I recommend piggybacking A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting with The U.S. and the Holocaust in high school and college classroom screenings, as well as in library and religious venues, to raise awareness of the explosion of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and to warn against their normalization.
A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting was executive produced by notable Pittsburgh natives, including Michael Keaton, Billy Porter and Mark Cuban, and features an original theme song, “The Tree of Life,” written and sung by Idina Menzel.
A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, October 26, 2022, 9:00-10:20 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for repeat screenings in the days and weeks ahead, and HBO Max for streaming.) See my September 18, 2022 coverage of The U.S. and the Holocaust in FrontRowCenter for info on its availability.–Judith Trojan