In Pittsburgh, rivers, bridges, and tunnels divide communities. The city is a dappled array of neighborhoods with unique identities and intractable boundaries. 

And when a gunman slaughtered worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue last October – shouting as he entered, “All Jews must die!” – it revealed divisions that ran deeper than rivers and darker than tunnels. 

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting, one PCA church redoubled its efforts to build bridges to its Jewish neighbors.

Looking for a Landlord, Finding a Friend

In 2003, City Reformed Presbyterian Church (CRPC) was planted in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood because Oakland is home to seven of the city’s largest universities. The church leadership hoped CRPC could be a church not just for students, but for the entire university community.

Joseph Bianco

When CRPC wanted to start an evening worship service outside Oakland in 2015, the session and Assistant Pastor Joseph Bianco did their homework and decided the adjacent Squirrel Hill neighborhood — with its heavy concentration of graduate students — would be the best fit. But Squirrel Hill is also the epicenter of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, with 26 percent of the community’s residents identifying as Jewish.

Looking for a worship space, Bianco met with organizations all over Squirrel Hill, and he finally found a willing landlord in Community Day School (CDS). The Jewish K-8 school already rented to Christian congregations on Sunday morning and afternoon, and CDS administrators were happy to offer CRPC the evening slot. 

CRPC leadership enjoyed a good relationship with CDS, but the church leadership felt that it needed help understanding Squirrel Hill’s Jewish culture. The church brought in Christian Witness in Israel to help the session understand the cultural barriers that keep members of the Jewish community from embracing the Gospel, including the historic link between Christianity and anti-Semitism.

Over the next three years, CRPC rented from CDS until the church purchased its own building in September 2018.

Loving Vulnerable Neighbors

On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers stormed Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people. The massacre shocked the nation, but it devastated Pittsburgh’s closely-knit Jewish community. Tree of Life sits 1.4 miles away from CDS; everyone at CDS knew someone affected by the shooting.

While donations from around the country poured in to Tree of Life, Bianco was concerned about how CDS might also fare in the aftermath. In addition to writing cards to worshippers at Tree of Life, Bianco and church members wrote letters and cards of condolence to CDS administrators, teachers, and students. But they didn’t want to stop with kind words.

The session of CRPC asked CDS what the church could do to help its former landlord. When Bianco met with the school administrators to discuss ideas, the CDS leadership admitted it had always worried about anti-Semitism, but now it felt more vulnerable than ever. CRPC decided to raise funds to strengthen the security at the day school, with a goal of $25,000 

Joseph Bianco (right) and Matt Koerber (left), pastors of City Reformed Church, present a check to Avi Munro, head of Community Day School. The check represents funds raised to date.

The school set up a GoFundMe page for donations, and Bianco says he hopes other PCA churches will join the fundraising.

“The powerful thing I see is healing from a lot of anti-Semitic issues in the past,” Bianco said. “We are reaching out based on our relationship [with CDS] and recognizing the Christian community hasn’t always treated [the Jewish community] well, but we want to heal from past sins.”

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