Jewish people primarily tell two types of stories. There’s the Passover kind, where a narrative is repeated with slight nuance; and there’s the shiva kind, where a hodgepodge of vignettes combat an absence to tell a larger tale. After identifying the distinction, Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, invited Tree of Life congregants to share the latter — and for 90 minutes on Tuesday evening, inside a densely packed classroom at Wightman School in Squirrel Hill, Jewish storytellers lauded a 158-year-old congregation whose history, and building, were marred by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life building and murdered Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. The 11 Jewish worshippers were members of the Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations.
Since that Saturday morning, Tree of Life Congregation has been displaced. An upcoming structural overhaul to the building on Wilkins and Shady avenues will convert its worship and educational spaces to a smaller sanctuary and adjacent museum. With almost five years having passed since congregants last used the building — they have been gathering in the meantime at Rodef Shalom Congregation — the storytelling event was a chance to share memories, laugh and mark bygone congregational life.
“This was my home, this was my second home,” Rachel Rosen said.
Her father, David Dinkin, was the congregation’s executive director, religious school principal and “sometime rabbi,” she said.
Dinkin’s roles at Tree of Life afforded Rosen countless hours inside the synagogue, but much of that time ended in trouble.
“I was bad,” she said.
As part of the first group of girls to become bat mitzvah at the Conservative congregation, Rosen was tasked with learning a haftarah, which was “a big to-do,” she said.
Her meetings with Cantor Harry Silversmith often didn’t go well.
“[He] threw me out of my bas mitzvah lessons because I was never prepared,” Rosen recalled.
It wasn’t the only time she was tossed from class. During Hebrew school, she and a friend often hid beneath their teacher’s desk. When the teacher entered the room, Rosen and her classmate started singing “Hativkah,” Israel’s national anthem.
“She had no idea where we were, and I don’t know how that was,” Rosen said, “but when they found out, I was in trouble from that.”
Jill Beck, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at Tree of Life decades later, also shared some humorous stories.
As a teenager attending confirmation, Beck was supposed to be at the Squirrel Hill building by 8:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings.
“We negotiated,” the current attorney said. “We said, ‘We’ll be in your class but we need a 45-minute break.’”
After Tree of Life leadership acquiesced, Beck and her friends lawfully used the time in a profane way: They drove to Taco Bell.
“We wouldn’t open the food inside the building — because of kosher — so we ate tacos and burritos on the fire escape,” she said.
Howard Elson, a past president of the congregation, recalled several performances staged by the congregation.
With help from Emery Malachowski of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, Elson excerpted videos of the plays. At each break, Elson mentioned the names of people who danced, sang and performed in shows, including “Irvita,” “A Night in the Ukraine,” “Dare to Dream” and “Tree of Life’s Tree of Laughs.”
Recordings and related materials, he said, were going to the Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish Archives, which along with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, helped organize Tuesday’s program.
Like Elson, fellow past president Lynette Lederman stood at the front of the room and told nearly 40 attendees about her time at Tree of Life’s helm.
“I was the second female president in 125 years,” she said. “Hilda Kreimer was the first female president, from 1982 to 1984; and I came along in 2000, over 20 years later — and that would tell you what a patriarchy it was, and that women were really not accepted in the management of synagogues across the country.”
Lederman recalled how even after becoming president several people were unhappy about her position.
They believed, “she could be president of the Sisterhood, but a woman couldn’t be president of the congregation, and they let me know it,” Lederman said.
“It was a really rough time, until I got through it, but my real touchstone was that when I was on the bima every Friday night and Saturday morning, for bar mitzvahs and anything that I had to do, there was a cadre of women in the congregation — Ruth Ann Klein, Rose Mallinger, Sylvia [Moidel], Sally Rock, Marcia Solomon — and they would be nodding to me. They would be giving me affirmation that I was supposed to be up there. And truthfully, I never, ever forgot them. And all of the leadership work I’ve done over the years, I never forgot them. I see them in my mind’s eye.”
As the evening unfolded, and more stories followed, attendees mingled and enjoyed refreshments. Participants moved between plastic folding chairs in the room’s center to quiet corners for chatting.
There was a shiva-like aura to the evening, Feinstein noted.
“It’s not necessarily shiva to any one person or to any one thing, but shiva to an era that no longer is there. And it doesn’t mean that the next thing that’s coming won’t be beautiful, it just means that we’re finishing up a chapter,” she said.
Robin Friedman echoed the sentiment when recalling her 59-year membership to Tree of Life.
“Several years back, before 10/27, when we were considering our next moves as a Congregation, someone said that it didn’t really matter where we are because the building is only bricks and mortar,” she said. “While that is partially true — and it’s the people that make the congregation regardless of where we are housed — that building at Wilkins and Shady will always be more than bricks and mortar to me. For reasons way beyond our control, we will have a new building and we will make new memories, and we will carry in the hearts the memories of the people who helped shape us as a congregation.”
Before exiting Wightman School, Andrea Wedner, a survivor of the 2018 shooting, stood beside members of her family. She and her brother Alan Mallinger looked at a black-and-white photograph of their mother, Rose Mallinger, seated beside other Tree of Life stalwarts.
“A lot of the people from many years ago, they’re just always with us,” Wedner said. “They’re going to be with us. It makes the rebuild of the synagogue and the new building even more special and important. That’s why we have to do this — to carry on their legacy.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.