On an unseasonably warm, overcast October afternoon, surrounded by withered leaves and the heavy presence of police and security, community members gathered to commemorate the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
A crowd of hundreds, including survivors of the attack, family members of victims, local community leaders, politicians and interfaith supporters, gathered on Oct. 27 at Prospect Drive in Schenley Park to remember the 11 members of Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life Congregation murdered while celebrating Shabbat five years ago.
Heavy in the air was the Hamas terrorist attack that took place 20 days earlier and left 1,400 dead and more than 230 hostages. The immediacy of the Hamas-Israel war meant that, for some, it was difficult to separate their feelings.
Despite the challenges, Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, which organized the commemoration, said that it was important to take time from other concerns, if possible, to concentrate on the emotions of the day.
“One of the things about trauma is that it’s cumulative, and if we keep piling everything onto it, then it’s hard to heal anything. My encouragement,” she said, “is that in this space, let’s continue to heal the wound and then there’s going to be other spaces in our life to nurture other things, but to not do it all.”
After welcoming words by Feinstein, representatives from each of the 11 victim families lit candles in memory of their loved ones.
Tree of Life’s Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers offered a prayer for the souls of the departed, El Malei Rahamim, in a voice wrought with emotion and cracking as he read the names of the 11 murdered: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.
A familiar sight to those who attended previous commemorations, Tree of Life President Alan Hausman honored the first responders to the attack.
Representatives from the three congregations — Dan Leger (Dor Hadash), Barbara Caplan (New Light) and Irwin Harris (Tree of Life) orated the meditation “Every Minute Someone Leaves the World,” before Rabbi Amy Bardack, rabbi of Dor Hadash, recited Mi Sheberach and Gordie Felt, former president of the Families of Flight 93, offered perspectives on healing.
Unique to this year’s ceremony was the addition of the Violins of Hope. The Three Rivers Young People’s Orchestra and the Clarion Quartet both featured the Holocaust-era instruments in pieces they performed.
The value of relationships was highlighted through a poem read by Rabbi Ron Symons of the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Rev. Liddy Barlow of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.
Survivors and witnesses of the attack — Carol Black, Rabbi Doris Dyen, Audrey Glickman, Dan Leger, Andrea Wedner, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Deane Root and Tree of Life custodian Augie Siriano, offered a piece titled “Give Us Strength,” followed by a “Prayer for our Country” led by Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.
Reflecting on the commemoration, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein said that as he walked along Prospect Avenue on his way to the ceremony, he passed the trees planted in memory of those murdered, which serve as a reminder of more than the attack.
“Their lives are gone, but their memory lives on, and this community remains so strong,” he said.
Brian Schreiber, the JCC’s chief external affairs officer and special adviser to the CEO, said that for the families, the loss will always be there, but that the sentencing of the shooter provided the finality of one part of the journey. He echoed the words of Finkelstein about the community’s strength.
“I think that being active, being in the community and remembering why we’re here, I think we feel incredibly strong together,” he said.
And, in a time of increasing antisemitic incidents, Schreiber said it’s important to remember a lesson taught by the attack.
“The events of five years ago were a call to action about being situationally aware,” he said. “Stay very, very vigilant and, if you see something, say something.”
Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor at the time of the attack, said that people need to lean on each other during this five-year commemoration.
“Trauma brings back trauma,” he said. “Pittsburgh proved that it could be resilient and that we could look beyond lines of religion and race and any other way we tend to separate ourselves. I think with what’s happening in the world, we need to look at Pittsburgh as an example.”
Fitzgerald said Oct. 27, 2018, was the darkest day of his years in service and that it was important for people to reflect, remember and pray for those lost.
“I think coming together to remember the 11 victims and their families,” he said, “is something that Pittsburgh should continue to do.”
State Sen. Devlin Robinson said he attended the commemoration because people are still hurting, the memory of the attack is still very powerful and he wants to support those in need.
“Anytime there’s a tragedy in our community, I want to be here,” he said.
Gainey said that he can’t imagine what the Pittsburgh Jewish community has gone through, not only because of the attack but also during the prolonged period of the trial and the anxiety that accompanies a death penalty court case.
“I can’t do anything about what’s happening in the Middle East but pray,” he said. “But I can be here for the local Jewish community. I know what they’ve been through. We should pray for peace, something we can only do if we come together as a community. We have to love everybody. My job is to keep the city safe. I want it to be the safest city in the country. I don’t want another Tree of Life or another ethnic group to ever go through this situation.”
While keeping the community safe is a priority, so, too, is remembering the attack, said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
“These commemorations are a present event intended for the people who live through or are contemporaneous to an event,” he said. “It’s a way of holding space.”
Michele Rosenthal, sister of Cecil and David Rosenthal, said it means a lot that the community turns out every year.
“The community has been so supportive since October 2018,” she said. “They have been steadfast in their support and the families truly appreciate it.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.