On his way to synagogue on Saturday, longtime oleh (Israeli immigrant) Daniel Charter saw a police car with its sirens blaring flooring it down the road in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. His first thought was, “Oh, no — a piguah [terrorist attack].”
But Charter quickly checked his apprehensions. After all, he told The Times of Israel, “That can’t be. That doesn’t happen in America. So I brushed it off.”
Charter, 35, is now an Israeli tour guide living in Yokne’am Illit with his wife and two daughters. This past weekend was his first in his native United States in over six years, and his first-ever visit to Pittsburgh. He was in town to help recruit University of Pittsburgh students for Birthright trips taking place this winter and spring.
Charter said that when he and his host, campus Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Rothstein, got to the Yeshiva Schools and Lubavitch Center synagogue, everything seemed normal — at first. But then Charter heard murmuring from the back of the sanctuary.
“Two seconds later, the rabbi came to the front and said there was a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, and that they were in touch with the police, that we’re on lockdown,” Charter said.
Parents rushed outside to gather their children. Men — Charter later heard claims that they were armed — were stationed by the doors. Because it was Shabbat, the Orthodox congregation didn’t have access to their phones, and rumors swirled.
“We heard it was eight people, 11 people, that four police were killed… we didn’t really know what was going on,” said Charter.
It wasn’t Charter’s first time being close to an attack on Jews — nor his second. His latest too-close-for-comfort brush with violence occurred this past March, when a terrorist stabbed and killed a father of two in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City while Charter was at the Western Wall with a Birthright group he was guiding.
“It felt exactly the same,” said Charter about the Pittsburgh massacre. “I know in the news they didn’t call it a terror attack, but to me, it was. It felt like a piguah.”
“Maybe it’s different. It’s a white supremacist, and everyone is very — it’s strange how everyone is so up in arms about everything here,” said Charter. “They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s Trump, it’s this, it’s that.’ I don’t know — to me it just seemed like somebody who wanted to kill Jews. It didn’t seem so different from [the 2014 terror attack on a synagogue in] Har Nof.”
Walking home from services after being given the all clear, Charter said the Jewish Pittsburgh residents weren’t sure how to process what was happening.
Having resided in Jerusalem since 2002 — the height of the Second Intifada — the American expat said he “felt like the expert on how to deal with it, in a way. The other Americans were like, ‘What do we do,’ and I said not to worry — you never really know how to deal with it at first, and it takes time to sink in.”
Charter said that as he and his hosts walked back home from the synagogue in their conspicuously Jewish attire, drivers stopped their cars to express sympathy, condolence, and support.
The attack and its aftermath was not how he had envisioned his tour of his former country.
“As a tour guide I always take people to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, so I figured, oh, cool, we’ll be in Philadelphia, I’ll go to the American Independence Hall. It’ll be like my own Birthright trip, coming back to America, reconnecting with my roots,” said Charter.
“I went to the World Trade Center, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, went to Independence Hall — and I didn’t really connect with any of it. But then, when this happened — it sounds weird to say, but I kind of felt at home a little bit,” he said.
Even when he made his way Sunday back to his hometown of El Paso, Texas, Charter said that Americans of all stripes were in mourning over the synagogue attack.
“I came to El Paso, and they were having a vigil here, even though it was so far removed,” Charter said, minutes before starting his trek back to Israel. “All the flags were at half mast. Everywhere I’ve gone, flags have been at half mast.”
The solidarity was also felt on campus in the hours after the attack, said Charter, when dozens of students showed up spontaneously at the University of Pittsburgh Chabad house, along with the dean of the school.
“The dean said he was here for the Jewish students, and later on they even brought a counselor in case anyone needed it,” Charter said.
“In Israel we always think — like, when I told people I was going to be visiting American university campuses they said, ‘What goes on there is terrible,’” said Charter. “But then I felt like, wow, people care. They’re not on their own like Israelis think sometimes. You could feel that people really care.”