On Oct. 27, 2018, unimaginable horror descended on the city of Pittsburgh as an anti-Semite extinguished the lives of 11 innocent Jews and forever changed the lives of countless others.
It was just before 10 a.m. that Shabbat morning when the killer, armed with an assault rifle, stormed the synagogue at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues where worshippers had just begun morning prayers at three separate congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. He had posted anti-Semitic rants on social media just prior to driving from his home in Baldwin Borough to Squirrel Hill and reportedly yelled, “All Jews must die,” before murdering Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Mel Wax and Irving Younger.
As he fired his weapon, also seriously injuring congregants Andrea Wedner and Daniel Leger, the Pittsburgh Police received calls reporting an active shooter, and within one minute had dispatched officers to the scene.
Sirens rang through the streets of Squirrel Hill as worshippers at other local congregations began to receive the news that the Tree of Life building was under attack. The phones of Jewish Pittsburghers throughout the city buzzed urgently with texts and calls from friends and family all over the world, seeking to make sure their loved ones were safe.
By 11:08 a.m., the killer had surrendered to police, leaving four first responders — officers Timothy Matson, Daniel Mead, Anthony Burke and Michael Smidga — wounded.
It was the worst anti-Semitic attack ever to be committed on U.S. soil, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
It was also “a very horrific crime scene,” Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said at the time. “It’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill, the Tree of Life building. Like Sandy Hook and Parkland and Aurora, the names swiftly — and perhaps permanently — became inextricably linked to gun violence. For more than a week, the mass shooting here was the lead story for most major news outlets. Scores of reporters and photographers and videographers descended on Squirrel Hill, and locals here quickly became accustomed to seeing their friends and neighbors interviewed by celebrity journalists on national television, or being quoted in the Washington Post or The New York Times.
An outpouring of support
Almost immediately, those in Jewish Pittsburgh felt the support of each other, regardless of denomination or affiliation. The Jewish community stood as one people. Children from Orthodox day schools prayed in front of the Tree of Life building, a sacred site that had housed Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations. Members from both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox chevrah kadishas worked side by side in tending to the remains of those killed in accordance with Jewish law.
Local institutions sprang into action right away. Soon after the murderer began his rampage, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh filled with thousands of people who waited in a makeshift “grief center” to hear the fate of their loved ones. The JCC, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, provided space and comfort, fielded phone calls and offered aid to the FBI, Salvation Army and Red Cross. The Jewish Family and Community Services rapidly mobilized to provide counseling to the injured, bereaved families, community members and schools.
Neighbors did whatever they could, from donating blood to delivering food.
That Saturday night, students at Allderdice High School organized a candlelight vigil at Forbes and Murray avenues, attracting hundreds despite the rain. The following evening, thousands came to a vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, where both the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah” were sung to an audience that included representatives of every Pittsburgh faith group as well as local political figures and Israeli dignitaries.
“We’re here to be supporters,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto at the Soldiers and Sailors vigil. “We’re here to make sure that those victims’ families have what Pittsburghers do, the understanding that we are all here for them and we will help them through this horror that they are living. We are here to recognize the officers and the two members of the congregation who are still suffering, and to let them and their families know, we’re here for you because we’re Pittsburghers and that’s what we do.”
Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation, stressed the importance and meaning of community at that Sunday night vigil. In the months that followed, the weight behind his words would become even more evident.
“We need the comfort of each other,” Finkelstein said. “We need love not hate, and we need that giant hug that this Pittsburgh Jewish community always gives.”
Metaphorical and literal “giant hugs” also were offered by those beyond the local Jewish community. Support continued to pour out from Pittsburgh’s interfaith community, from its local and state politicians, even from its sports teams, in not only words of alliance, but with kind gestures, cards, comfort items.
Within days, the Federation had established its Victims of Terror Fund. Donations came from all over the world, and in March, a committee of community leaders had established a formula for distributing more than $6.3 million as “compassion payments.” The Muslim community raised funds for the victims as well, as did a 29-year-old Iranian immigrant, Shay Khatiri, who independently set up a crowd-funding site that amassed more than $1 million.
The number of fundraising efforts was overwhelming, and included Menorahgate, a tailgate event at a Steelers game organized by millennials from Tree of Life, and a “Roots of Steel” benefit concert hosted by Billy Porter at Carnegie Music Hall, which also was organized by local millennials.
Visits by celebrities and political figures continued throughout the year, including, just days following the shooting, President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
The president’s visit was greeted by a large protest organized by groups Bend the Arc and IfNotNow.
In the weeks and months that followed, Pittsburgh would be visited by actors Michael Keaton and Mayim Bialik, and New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, among others.
Area congregations opened their doors to the congregants of Dor Hadash, Tree of Life and New Light. New Light relocated into the Beth Shalom building, while Dor Hadash and Tree of Life moved into Rodef Shalom. The Calvary Episcopal Church provided space and resources for Tree of Life to hold its 2019 High Holiday services.
A group no one wants to be a part of
Among those who showed up in Pittsburgh to support survivors and victims of the massacres were those who knew firsthand the acute pain, anger and despair that follows a mass shooting.
Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, senior pastor at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, came to Pittsburgh days after the massacre here to offer support to the suffering congregations.
Mother Emanuel also had been targeted by a white supremacist, who in 2015 stormed the church during bible study and killed nine parishioners.
Manning’s presence gave Rabbi Jeffrey Myers strength at a time when it was desperately needed, said the spiritual leader of Tree of Life at the funeral for Rose Mallinger, 97, which Manning attended.
“An angel visited me this morning,” Myers said at the funeral. “My tank, I don’t think it’s even running on fumes — the fumes have already dissipated. An angel came to me this morning to give me courage and strength.”
The relationship between Mother Emanuel and the Pittsburgh congregations continued. On Martin Luther King weekend, seven members of New Light traveled to Charleston to pray and march during holiday weekend along with members of the church.
In May, Manning, along with nine of his congregants, returned to Pittsburgh in a continued show of solidarity. Their presence brought comfort to Pittsburghers still acutely grieving six months following the massacre here.
“They’ve been there, and know what we’re going through, and they have found a way to forgiveness,” said Carol Black, sister to murdered New Light member Dr. Richard Gottfried, at the time. “That’s something I may struggle with forever.”
Just one month prior to the Mother Emanuel visit, students, teachers and parents from Parkland, Florida, the site of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, came to Pittsburgh to offer inspiration and help with healing. Ivy Schamis, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, returned to Pittsburgh to be part of a panel discussion on forgiveness at the JCC on Yom Kippur. At the JCC’s annual meeting in September, its inaugural Loving Kindness Award was presented to Daniel Tabares of Parkland, a junior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in recognition of his inspiring work.
In August, families of victims and survivors of the Oct. 27 massacre joined with those from nine other cities that were terrorized by gun violence at a three-day Healing Through Love Meditation Retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, to learn coping techniques to manage the continuing suffering they experience, as well as to connect with others who are going through similar trauma.
“To meet with other families who had been through this made a huge difference,” said Marnie Fienberg, daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, at the time. “You wanted to connect with them.”
Although Marnie Fienberg “didn’t want to be part of this group,” she said she is “very grateful that there are people looking out for us and thinking about how we help each other, and I am very hopeful that in the future I can return that and pay it forward as well.”
While relationships forged with survivors of past mass shootings helped with the healing, reports of new attacks throughout the year continued to re-open wounds.
On the last day of Passover, six months to the day of the massacre at the Tree of Life building, an anti-Semite stormed into the Chabad of Poway near San Diego, killing congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injuring three others, including the shul’s rabbi.
During an April 29 vigil for Poway at the JCC here, the Federation’s Finkelstein thanked the crowd for coming out after “a raging anti-Semite shot up a holy place of worship on Shabbat and murdered our extended Jewish family.”
“These are the exact words, the exact words, I spoke at Soldiers and Sailors Hall on October 28,” he said, with irritation in his voice. “Unfortunately, they still resonate today. I’m sick and tired and frustrated and angry that I have to use them again.”
When a white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, leaving 51 people dead, the Federation immediately launched a fundraiser for victims, and in June, sent more than $650,000 to Christchurch, including $60,000 raised by Tree of Life.
In April, following the murders of more than 250 people in Sri Lanka in bombings at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community joined other people of faith at yet another vigil, this time at Heinz Memorial Chapel.
“I’m not here as a Jew,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light, at the time. “I’m here as a person of religion, suffering another tragedy in another place where people have died simply because of the way they believe in God.”
When, over the course of a weekend in August, 22 people were murdered in a Walmart shopping center in El Paso, Texas, and nine people were killed in an unrelated attack in Dayton, Ohio, Jewish Pittsburghers joined in a show of support. Dozens of people gathered at Beth Shalom to write letters to the families of the victims, an event organized by Yael Perlman, daughter of Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light.
Beginning to move forward
Jewish Pittsburgh is different now than it was prior to Oct. 27, 2018. After the worst of humanity reared its head here on that day, the community then saw the best, which has delivered not only inspiration and comfort, but hope.
Tree of Life is on the road to rebuilding, determined to use its space on the corner of Wilkins and Shady to properly memorialize those killed during the massacre, and to be a beacon of light in a world that continues to be thrust into darkness.
The Jewish community here now knows that it can and will come together in times of despair. It has also seen that there is far more good in the world than there is evil.
Still, the community has ramped up its focus on security, and is becoming accustomed to seeing armed guards at the doors of its institutions.
Jewish Pittsburgh has learned in the worst possible way that anti-Semitism is most definitely still alive in the 21st century, and that the violence it inspires can hit anywhere, even in the heart of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
But Pittsburgh’s Jews also now know, without a doubt, that they are Stronger than Hate. JN
This article originally ran in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.