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The Tree of Life, a seed to be replanted

By Samantha Storms


When news of the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting swept the nation, the despair that overtook me was two-fold. Twin blows. A slash to the heart. When word finally reached me, my grief was for the destruction of two homes – two sources of love and pain that have shaped me into the person I was, the person I am and the person I hope to be. 

When Robert Bowers chose to enter The Tree of Life Congregation – that holy space surrounded by the lushest of trees that welcomed all members of the lively Pittsburgh community with open arms – his intent was to dismantle the very foundation of faith and love that that has for so long gushed from every street corner and front porch across Allegheny County.

When Robert Bowers set foot in that synagogue with the intent to pull the trigger – with the intent to do harm to a group of God-fearing faithful people – I grieved for the home that Pittsburgh was to me, the city that blossomed before me each time my car emerged from the Fort Pitt Tunnel, the twinkling lights a gentle reminder of the city’s bustling history and its capacity for giving. 

It was Pittsburgh that brought into being my father, the strongest man I have ever known. It was Pittsburgh that welcomed my immigrated mother into its fold without even a second thought. This city, despite all its problems, were all my brother and I had ever known for 18 years of our lives. 

Growing up in the less-than-savory streets of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, just 12 short miles from Pittsburgh proper, the Storms children were no strangers to the type of hostility that could fester within the surrounding communities, due to the dangerous thoughts of extremists. We grew accustomed to hearing about the grown-up that was shot behind the corner score. The violence seemed so natural that we did not cry when the friends of our friends started to lose themselves to the streets. 

And yet, despite these problems that took the lives of young girls and boys before their 18th birthday, it was Pittsburgh that gave me the strength, the drive and the unwavering determination to escape and pursue that which those unmerciful streets could never offer me. I owe every sliver of success and happiness to my family, my teachers and the few friends I ever made – all persistent reminders of the city of my youth that remain burned into my mind forever. 

And when Robert Bowers decided to unleash his assault on The Tree of Life Congregation, his bullets pierced an entire city. The deaths of those 11 will haunt me on every trip back home, a constant reminder that the city that has been the source of so much happiness and sorrow alike for me continues to face darkened days. 

But my anguish isn’t pacified by the seven-hour drive back to New York. My pain isn’t left behind, tucked neatly beneath my mattress to await the next opportunity to invade my thoughts. 

One of the deepest, most profound connections I have ever felt came from a member of that faith, firm in its resolve to survive. I have felt a love unconditional – a love that has revealed to me every sorrow and every joy that this world has to offer. 

Growing up in a Catholic home, I had not even an inkling of what this Jewish boy with his brown curls and set ways would come to mean to me. I would come to recognize traces of his faith in my own, and I felt a bond to his people in ways completely unfathomable to that little girl playing ball with kids down the block in narrow alleys bathed in the purple light of the south-western Pennsylvania sun. The Jewish community was far from the terrorizing, condemned people that Bowers would have the world believe them to be. From that prosecuted faith was born the realest love I have ever known. I grieve for an entire people and its ancestors, each attack brought onto them a constant reminder of the horrors of their past only pacified by hopes of the future. 

Thus is the extent of my pain. My voice will never truly be capable of expressing the anguish that exudes from the heavy hearts of the friends and family slayed in that Squirrel Hill synagogue, nor will it ever be able to speak for a people and faith in whose home I am merely a guest. 

But I can speak for my own sorrow. It is with a bleeding heart that I return home to the broken city that raised me with the love of my life at my arm. Only together might we be able to pick up the pieces. 

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