Federation’s CEO recalls Oct. 27, 2018
10/27 trialA look back

Federation’s CEO recalls Oct. 27, 2018

“I had a role to try and bring some calmness and support to the Jewish community while we were still trying to figure out what was going on.”

From left: Former CRC Director Josh Sayles, Former Gov. Tom Wolf and Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein (Photo provided by Josh Sayles)
From left: Former CRC Director Josh Sayles, Former Gov. Tom Wolf and Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein (Photo provided by Josh Sayles)

Jeff Finkelstein was disoriented by more than jet lag the morning of Oct. 27.

Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, returned to Pittsburgh from Israel the previous evening, in time to celebrate Shabbat with his wife.

“It was a normal night after a long trip,” Finkelstein recalled. “The next morning, I had decided I was going to sleep in, which I don’t do because I get really jet-lagged. I was up the next day and got a call around 10 a.m.”

The call was from the Federation’s then-board chair, Meryl Ainsman, telling him there was a shooting at the Tree of Life building.

“I had to figure out what to do,” Finkelstein said. “Do I go there? Do I stay at home? Do I trust the news? I mean, who knows?”

He decided to head to the building. When he reached barriers set up by the police several blocks away, he realized that he had to quickly learn the details of what was happening and determine the needs of the community.

Finkelstein wasn’t the only community leader who had heard the news and traveled to the site of the danger. Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Bill Peduto, state Rep. Dan Frankel and Pittsburgh City Council member Corey O’Connor were all outside the building when he arrived.

“I have a couple of pictures on my cell phone of police running down the street in full tactical gear, running to storm the building,” Finkelstein said. “I’ve never shared them publicly. They’re on my phone as a reminder of what that day was all about. A lot of people saw it on TV. I saw it live.”

Media, too, were beginning to arrive on the scene. Finkelstein said that Squirrel Hill resident and WPXI anchor David Johnson was already on-site and filing on-air reports.

Shortly after Finkelstein spoke with Federation’s then-director of community security, Brad Orsini — who was traveling to the building from Somerset, Pennsylvania — the shooter was apprehended and more information about the attack became available.

“I started to get reports on how many people had been killed,” Finkelstein recalled. “I think the first update was that there were three people, then seven and then it became 11.”

Finkelstein’s next call was to Brian Eglash, Federation’s chief development officer and senior vice president, asking for help coordinating the response effort.

It wasn’t long before the media realized that the Federation’s CEO was at the building and began asking for interviews. That caused Finkelstein to pause to consider what role he would play, both locally and nationally.

He said he recalled former Knesset member and friend Nachman Shai, who handled communications for the Israel Defense Forces during the Gulf War.

“When everyone was getting trained on how to use gas masks and how to create safe rooms to block out any chemical weapons, he would get on TV and tell everyone to stay calm and that everything was fine. I really thought about that,” Finkelstein said.

“I had a role to try and bring some calmness and support to the Jewish community while we were still trying to figure out what was going on.”

As the day progressed and the immediate threat subsided, Finkelstein and other community leaders moved to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. His thoughts then turned to the larger community.

“The first thing I did was tell Brad Orsini to spend whatever it takes and do whatever you need to do,” Finkelstein said. “We want to make sure the community not only is safe but feels safe. We’ll figure out the money down the road.”

That type of decision-making isn’t common in Jewish communal service, he said, because volunteers typically help make important decisions for the organizations they serve.

Finkelstein informed Ainsman of his directive immediately after talking to Orsini, and continued to update the organization’s board, who, he said, helped in the following days to make critical decisions.

“In a three-week period, we had six board meetings,” Finkelstein said. “We normally have six board meetings a year. We suspended normal business for several months. We stopped the annual campaign. We stopped everything we were doing so we could focus on helping this community stay resilient.”

In the years that followed the attack, many people have presumed that Federation’s response to the attack is Finkelstein’s greatest professional achievement. While he’s proud of the work accomplished by everyone involved in that effort, he disagrees.

“The proudest I am of Federation leadership is in 2016 when we decided to hire a security director,” Finkelstein said. “We saved lives that day. It was a horrible day, but we saved some lives.”

In addition to security training, Orsini provided a level of expertise that helped streamline and manage the Federation’s response, Finkelstein said. At the JCC that day, Pittsburgh’s three largest Jewish communal organizations organized and delegated responsibilities.

Jewish Family and Community Services, headed by Jordan Golin, took on mental health needs and immediately opened walk-in clinics. The JCC, led by Brian Schreiber, became the gathering center for families waiting for news about their loved ones and the headquarters for the FBI. Federation, Finkelstein said, handled security as well as communications and marketing.

In collaboration with other organizations, including the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness, Federation took the lead in planning the vigil at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland the next day.

“We knew we needed to bring the community together,” Finkelstein said. “Because of our trusted relationships, we knew we could just run in our areas and keep each other informed of the decisions we were making. No one organization could handle it all.”

Finkelstein still gets emotional recalling the process of families being told of their loved ones’ deaths. His voice cracking while fighting back tears, he said all families hoped for the best, but as the afternoon progressed most knew the reality of the situation.

“It was horrible seeing their faces and the pain they had,” he said. “Seeing each of them take it in, it was devastating.”

In the days following the shooting, Federation set up the Victims of Terror Fund, allowing people to donate — without knowing exactly how the funds would be used. To make that determination, former CEO of Giant Eagle Corp. David Shapira was drafted to chair an independent committee created by Federation.

“We didn’t ask for a penny and ended up with over $6 million donated in the weeks ahead,” Finkelstein said. “That money mostly went to the victims’ families, but other pieces went to security and some money came in specifically for Federation purposes from some of our friends and the big foundations around the country.”

Finkelstein can’t point to any particular day when the community felt ready to restart Jewish life again, but he said there was an inflection point after the JCC took the lead to set up the 10.27 Healing Partnership.

“When we opened that, we — as a community — were working toward what comes next,” he said.

By December 2018, Federation leaders decided to relaunch its annual campaign, realizing that both local agencies and their oversea partners were going to need funds, Finkelstein said.

“This was the time we pivoted toward some sense of normalcy in our operations,” he said.

Finkelstein has been a part of the fabric of Pittsburgh Jewish life for more than a quarter century, having grown up in Boston. During that time, he said, he’s developed deep relationships. And the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting led to meaningful connections with the families affected.

“I didn’t know any of the victims personally, not one of them,” he said. “But now, I’ve gotten to know their family members. I’ve gotten to know people like Andrea Wedner and Dan Leger [who were both shot but survived the attack]. Honestly, it’s some of the biggest blessings in my life. These are incredibly inspiring people.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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