Stronger Than Hate
By Skylar Houck
A Student Writer of Prof. Tippen
( ENG313 NonFiction )
To commemorate the first anniversary of the Tree of Life tragedy, we are publishing an essay written by a student of Professor Carrie Tippen of Chatham University that was originally submitted for Fall 2018 Creative Nonfiction class.
“When I was a little boy and something bad happened in the news,” begins one of Mr. Fred Rogers’ most repeated sentiments, “my mother would tell me to ‘look for the helpers. You’ll always find people helping.’”
I awoke on the morning of October 27 to news of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. As the minutes ticked by, casualties rose. Pittsburghers watched reports from their television screens, praying that the death toll would cease to rise. Finally, at 11:08 a.m., after what seemed like an eternity, the numbers were finalized. Eleven dead, seven injured. Countless would be scared for life.
That day, I heard nothing but sirens. Panic filled the streets and desperate texts were sent between friends and family to ensure safety. I wondered how the community could bounce back from a tragedy like this, the deadliest attack on the United States Jewish community. I carried on throughout the day feeling like numerous others: numb, tired, and cynical.
But as long as there is life, there is hope. The day following the mass shooting delivered promises of recovery, all thanks to the hundreds of volunteers willing to extend a helping hand during a time of trouble. I walked the streets of Pittsburgh, broken and despondent. A woman approached me with fliers in hand and a smile on her face. “We’re holding a benefit concert for the Tree of Life synagogue,” she said as she passed me a flier. “Please consider attending. Every donation helps.” Then she was gone, disappearing among crowds in the street, offering fliers and smiles to the most depressed individuals. This woman was not alone. Others immediately began organizing fundraisers, benefit events, and donations to help their neighbors at the Tree of Life.
Amidst all of the darkness, I saw that it was the helpers who act as our guiding lights. The Tree of Life synagogue rests in Squirrel Hill, the heart of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. It is no surprise that the area is a hub of helpers; it is a tight-knit community full of people willing to make sacrifices to ensure the well-being of neighbors.
The stained-glass windows displayed in the Tree of Life synagogue symbolize “how human-beings should care for the earth and one another.” News of the shooting was a rallying cry for Squirrel Hill. I visited Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade nonprofit venue and the site of one of the many Tree of Life fundraisers. Ten Thousand Villages was different from other stores in that it was staffed almost entirely by volunteers. I had volunteered at the store numerous times and would never forget its inviting atmosphere and the kindness of everyone around me. The store had begun selling candles for $16.00 each with all proceeds going to the Tree of Life. In a matter of days, the one hundred candles were sold out. One hundred and fifty more were ordered and sold out within a week. “Our hearts cry for Shalom,” the candles read along with the hashtag #strongerthanhate.
Pat Harrington, a longtime volunteer and now a manager at Ten Thousand Villages, expressed her thoughts on volunteering. “I feel blessed to volunteer in a place where the nicest people shop and the nicest people volunteer,” she began. “I feel blessed to work in a place where I’m surrounded by beauty. Volunteering at Ten Thousand Villages feeds my soul. I gain more than I give.”
When Pat finished speaking, I gave her a smile. “This is awesome,” I said. “It’s really nothing,” she replied with a laugh. But it wasn’t nothing. I knew that Pat and the other helpers of Squirrel Hill were the glue that held the community together. Pat displayed an immense humbleness that left those around her bubbling with pride and joy; upon walking into the store I could tell that she was one of the many helpers Mr. Rogers spoke of.
I exited Ten Thousand Villages through a door displaying signs that read “No Place for Hate” and “Stronger Than Hate” along with a cross-stitch Star of David. The other storefronts had similar signage in their windows, exhibiting their solidarity and effort to provide a safe space for Jewish communities. Seeing this made me proud of my neighborhood, of my city.
“‘You’ll always find people helping,’” Mr. Rogers’ quote goes. He continues, “And I found that that’s true. In fact, it’s one of the best things about our wonderful world1.” Pat and the countless other helpers have shown me the accuracy behind this statement.
Instead of feeling the overwhelming cynicism, I now go about my daily walk through Squirrel Hill reminded of hope and thankful for the helpers. Hand-knit Stars of David line trees and telephone poles up Murray and Forbes Avenue. “They were made and sent here from all over the world,” a woman explained to me when she found me studying the stars. She had handfuls of more stars and offered one to me. “Put it somewhere special where everyone can see.”
I thought deeply about where to stick my star. All of the helpers of Squirrel Hill filled my mind, the individuals who do whatever it takes to keep people smiling and hopeful, and I found myself smiling despite everything. It hit me that all of Squirrel Hill was special to me. The neighborhood had a special place in my heart, and the helpers made sure that it would stay that way.
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