Tragic parallels: New Zealand and Pittsburgh houses of worship suffer similar heartache

Crocheted Stars of David still flutter in the wind outside Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in remembrance of the 11 congregants killed only four months ago in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. The murders were allegedly committed by a man who expressed his hatred of migrants and a desire to kill Jews.

Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community on Friday relived the trauma of that late-October shooting when a gunman — described as a "right-wing extremist" — attacked two mosques in New Zealand Friday and gunned down 49 people.

The suspect accused of carrying out the attack in New Zealand appeared to have shared a manifesto before the shooting that detailed a white-supremacist worldview that seemed to parallel that of the man who is suspected of killing 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh — an similarity that did not go unnoticed.

"It hurts in the middle of your chest right above your sternum," said Cody Murphy, 18, a Jewish teen who pulled together a unity rally hours after the October shooting in Squirrel Hill. "It's actual heartache that people have so much hate for who you are. That they hate everyone you know — people who are wonderful people. And then you hear that they're worthless, that you're worthless. I'm not scared anymore. I'm just tired."

The massacre in New Zealand is the first mass shooting at a house of worship since the Tree of Life congregation was targeted. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who leads the Tree of Life synagogue, said he and his congregation are still coming to terms with another attack on a religious group and house of worship.

Related: New Zealand mosque shootings

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Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A body lies on the footpath outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.(AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A man reacts as he speaks on a mobile phone outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.(AP Photo/Mark Baker)
People wait outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Many people were killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday, a witness said. Police have not yet described the scale of the shooting but urged people in central Christchurch to stay indoors. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police attempt to clear people from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Many people were killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday, a witness said. Police have not yet described the scale of the shooting but urged people in central Christchurch to stay indoors.(AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A man talks on his mobile phone across the road from a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says a number of people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch; police urge people to stay indoors. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police attempt to move people away from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of worshippers attending Friday prayers on what the prime minister called "one of New Zealand's darkest days," as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police stand outside a mosque in Linwood, Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed during shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police stand outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine if more than one gunman was involved. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A police officer escorts a man away from a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine if more than one gunman was involved. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police keep watch at a park across the road from a a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine if more than one gunman was involved. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: Members of the public react in front of the Masjd Al Noor Mosque as they fear for their relatives on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 49 people have been confirmed dead and more than 20 are injured following attacks at two mosques in Christchurch. Four people are in custody following shootings at Al Noor mosque on Dean's Road and the Linwood Masjid in Christchurch. Mosques across New Zealand have been closed and police are urging people not to attend Friday prayers as a safety precaution. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: A floral tribute is seen on Linwood Avenue near the Linwood Masjid on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 49 people have been confirmed dead and more than 20 are injured following attacks at two mosques in Christchurch. Four people are in custody following shootings at Al Noor mosque on Dean's Road and the Linwood Masjid in Christchurch. Mosques across New Zealand have been closed and police are urging people not to attend Friday prayers as a safety precaution. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on March 15, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. One person is in custody and police are searching for another gunmen following several shootings at mosques in Christchurch. Police have not confirmed the number of casualties or fatalities. All schools and businesses are in lock down as police continue to search for other gunmen. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: Police Commissioner Mike Bush speaks to media during a press conference at Royal Society Te Aparangi on March 15, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. One person is in custody and police are searching for another gunmen following several shootings at mosques in Christchurch. Police have not confirmed the number of casualties or fatalities. All schools and businesses are in lock down as police continue to search for other gunmen. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
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Hours before Friday night services, Myers said he had scrapped his sermon in light of the latest news. With many people from journalists to congregants seeking him out for answers, Myers said he just hoped that "God gives me some divine inspiration to say the right thing."

His greatest wish remained, however, that people did not fear worshiping on Friday night — no matter their faith. That's why, immediately after the New Zealand attack, Myers said he reached out to his counterpart at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which had been immensely supportive of the Jewish community in the days after their own tragedy.

"We can't let fear encompass our deep abiding faith because we then let those who terrorize us win and that can never ever happen," Myers said.

Those are principles that Steffi Biersdorff-Wright, the young adult chair at Temple Sinai, another synagogue in Squirrel Hill, tries to teach to the members of her third- and fourth-grade worship study group — standing in solidarity with each other, as well as others who aren't like them.

But she said it's a conversation that is challenged by these attacks because in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, some of her students asked why people didn't like Jews or expressed a fear of being Jewish.

Biersdorff-Wright said she has struggled with fear herself when teaching in the synagogue.

"For a while, I had to sit with having a view of the doorway," she said. "As a teacher, I have to think about those things. I don't feel safe in my own place of worship. If something like that happened in my synagogue, how would I protect them?"

Adam Hertzman, the director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which is raising money for New Zealand's victims, said that the Squirrel Hill community still struggles with that concept of safety.

"As we learned again today, there are sadly crazy hateful people even in the most peaceful of communities," Hertzman said. "I know that even though Pittsburgh is very safe, people feel scared whenever they hear about an attack like this because the memory of last year is still so raw."

But Hertzman said the community remains vigilant and has added security measures to stymie a similar attack in future.

And while fear lingers after these events, it is also an opportunity to share love and show that the country and the world stand against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy — which President Donald Trump claimed is not a rising threat — and work to "silence those voices that are spreading violence and intolerance," Biersdorff-Wright said.

"It sucks that this is our new reality," she added, "but I hope the people in New Zealand know that the people here in Pittsburgh, myself included, are here for them and we support and love them. I know what we are feeling right now is raw, but I know that in these hard times I can stand in solidarity with others and we can take care of each other."

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