Shortly after hearing the news that 11 Jews in Pittsburgh had been murdered on Oct. 27 by an anti-Semite, 11 Jews from Pittsburgh who were traveling together in Israel headed to the Western Wall.
The trip, organized by the international women’s group Momentum, marked Upper St. Clair resident Kelly Schwimer’s first visit to the Jewish state. Schwimer, along with the other 10 Pittsburghers, was in the Old City in Jerusalem, listening to a presentation from Israeli soldiers, when she began receiving text messages from home that there had been a shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
The news, which was spotty at first, was “emotional” and “surreal,” said Schwimer, currently the Chronicle’s sales director.
But she found comfort being in Israel as part of a group in which she had already forged close bonds.
“If there was any place I’d rather be than at home in Pittsburgh with my own community and my own family, I was in the right place,” Schwimer said. “It was almost a gift. It was meant to be. The 11 of us, together in Israel, where moments after we heard the news, we were able to pray at the Wall.”
The eight-day Momentum trip, which brought the 11 women from Pittsburgh together with hundreds of other women from around the world, began on Oct. 22. The trip, which is highly subsidized, is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Classrooms Without Borders.
“The goal of the trip is to build a cohort of women in Pittsburgh who meet over a 15-month period,” beginning three months prior to the trip, said Emily Richman, the Federation’s director of development operations. Richman staffed the trip along with Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Pittsburgh.
Although the women were discouraged to have their cell phones with them on Shabbat, several who had children at home nonetheless had them on hand on Oct. 27, Richman said.
The texts about the shooting at the Tree of Life building came fast and furious. Because the women were in a learning session, they began “communicating quietly with each other,” Richman recalled.
“One of our participants lives a block from Tree of Life and her husband has a police scanner,” she said. “She was in communication with him, and she was getting as much information as possible. We were all talking to different people at home and getting updates.”
After the learning session concluded, two Israeli women who had been traveling with the group came into the room to formally share the news about the Pittsburgh shooting. Because Shabbat was concluding, a gentleman then led the women in a Havdalah service, at which time Richman and another Pittsburgh participant addressed the group.
“We said we appreciated everyone’s support and we had a moment of silence,” Richman said. “We asked them to pray for everyone. It was very emotional.”
Then the 11 women headed to the Kotel, “and we prayed together,” she said. “I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason and you are where you are at the time because that is where you are meant to be. So, for me, obviously I would want to be with my family, but I knew that they were safe and that I was where I was meant to be at that moment with these 10 women and hundreds of other women as well.”
The Pittsburghers on the trip felt not only supported by each other, but by the scores of Israelis they continued to meet.
“When we were in Israel, of course we were so sad, but we were in a little bit of a bubble because we were lifted so much by the solidarity of the Israelis,” said Altein. “It was amazing. Wherever we went, and when they saw our tags that we were from Pittsburgh, they were just so full of empathy and sharing their compassion and how they were with us.
“As sad it was,” she continued, “we felt so surrounded by love, and not just from Israelis, but we were together with hundreds of women from all over the world on this Momentum trip and they just kept coming over to us and showing their love and showing their support and sympathy. What I personally felt when I was in Israel through this was am Yisroel chai, we are one. We’d been through so many tragedies before. We made it through and we will make it through this one.”
As word got out that there were the 11 Pittsburghers among hundreds from the Momentum trip, people “wanted to know how we, the Pittsburgh women, were reacting or if we knew anybody who had been murdered,” Schwimer recalled. “They just really wanted to grieve with us and go through it with us as if we were Pittsburgh to them.”
The group also began getting contacted by Israeli media for interviews, Richman said.
The fact that there were 11 women from Pittsburgh on the trip was “Divine providence,” said Altein. “We had applied for 15 spots and there was a misunderstanding and they only gave us 10. Then they squeezed on one more at the end. Eleven is not a typical number. There were 11 women who ended up going and it was so meaningful to all of us. We all felt like we had a responsibility. I don’t think it was lost on anyone. Not on us and not on any of the people there.”
Several vigils in memory of the 11 Jews murdered in Pittsburgh were quickly arranged, including one organized by youth in Jerusalem, and one in Karmiel/Misgav, Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether region. Another vigil was held on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, where Richman spoke, as did Kim Saltzman, the Federation’s director of Israel and overseas operations, who also happened to be in Israel at the time, although not as part of the Momentum trip.
On the Sunday following the massacre, the group headed to Masada.
“That also seemed meaningful,” Altein said. “It drove home that we’ve been through so much as a nation and nothing will take us down.”
Schwimer had with her a “Terrible Tallis” — a tallis resembling a large Steeler’s “Terrible Towel” — made by Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. At the top of Masada, Schwimer draped the tallis over the 11 women.
“Even having that there was comforting,” Schwimer said.
Although it was challenging being away from home in the days following the massacre, “it was amazing being with these 10 women,” Richman said. “I don’t think any of us will ever forget being together on Oct. 27, and where we were and that we were all together and there for each other.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at