Five years after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — and just a couple of months after the conclusion of the trial of the shooter — Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and the Tree of Life Congregation are working to move forward.
“When the guilty verdict was announced to the families there was a collective sigh — more than a sigh … an outpouring of sound — that we now have an answer,” New Light Congregation co-President Stephen Cohen remembered.
New Light co-President Barbara Caplan said that the congregation held its collective breath for the last five years.
“And now that the trial and sentence are done, I can breathe again. But what’s happening in Israel is really going to impact the commemoration,” she said referring to the Israel-Hamas war.
Cohen said that many in the congregation have been in a holding pattern but now “they can be themselves.”
There’s been a lot of work, he noted, during the last five years to heal the congregation, which lost three of its largest pillars — Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Mel Wax — on Oct. 27.
“We were victimized, too,” Caplan said. “It was a big loss to the congregation — obviously not like the families — but they were the whole religious committee, they were it all, they were the rabbi’s right arm.”
“They made our minyan,” Cohen said.
Part of the healing process meant saying goodbye to the Tree of Life building, the space the congregation called home since it sold its synagogue in 2017. It is now housed in Congregation Beth Shalom.
“We’re very happy,” Cohen said. “They’ve gone out of their way to help us.”
“They’ve bent over backwards,” Caplan said, “to give us anything we’ve wanted within reason.”
The last few years, Cohen said, have been good: The congregation’s Rabbi Jonathan Perlman has taught adult education classes; there have been lecture series and numerous community events. Both spiritual and lay leadership will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
And while the last half-decade has presented challenges, including COVID-19, it also has created opportunities. Cohen pointed to the use of Zoom and a small contingent of loyal attendees who previously were unable to join services but now stream each week.
“We’re planning for the future,” he said.
The congregation has started to organize a trip to Israel for the spring of 2024.
“We will continue as a congregation,” Cohen said. “It’s the nature of New Light. We have been a family for so long, there’s no reason that should change in the future.”
“Families just don’t give up,” Caplan said.
Dor Hadash President Jo Recht said the Reconstructionist congregation is doing well. During the years leading up to the trial, it developed its first strategic plan.
It also hired its first full-time rabbi: Rabbi Amy Bardack.
“There was a lot of rethinking and sort of repositioning,” Recht said. “But through it all, we stayed intact and have consistently been acquiring new members. The congregation is strong.”
While there will never be closure from the trauma of the attack, she said, the congregation has reached an inflection point.
“There is a tremendous sense of relief that the trial is behind us,” she said. “There was real anxiety about the trauma it was going to reignite. I think that we’ve moved from one chapter to another.”
Recht has been president of Dor Hadash since April. She’s prioritized helping the congregation, which started as a small study group in 1963, to implement its strategic plan. She said it’s a work in progress.
Dor Hadash is collaborating with Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence and CeaseFirePA as part of the commemoration events around Oct. 27.
There will also be a program where people can tell their personal stories about gun violence on videotape and send them to legislators.
“It’s something that will be meaningful to Jerry Rabinowitz and to his wife, Miri” she said.
The other, more celebratory, event the congregation is looking forward to is its 60th anniversary.
“We’re planning a celebration in December, before the end of 2023,” Recht said. “We have a committee planning a year’s worth of events in the ensuing year to highlight some of the many ways Dor Hadash works to create community in different capacities with the congregation and community.”
Like New Light’s Caplan, Tree of Life President Alan Hausman said that many people in his congregation felt stuck in a holding pattern after the murder of members Joyce Fienberg, Rose Mallinger, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon and Irving Younger. And while he’s happy the trial is over, he’s clear: There are no winners.
“The winner is that the trial is over, and we have a final judgment, but it doesn’t bring anyone back,” he said, before noting that justice through the death penalty is weighty.
“We got justice but, wow, that’s heavy justice,” he said.
Hausman noted that, historically, changes arise in a community that has experienced a mass shooting after the five-year mark.
“There’s something about that time frame,” he said. “I think we may have been close to putting closure to it, and then this Israeli conflict comes.”
Unlike New Light and Dor Hadash, Hausman noted, Tree of Life has not moved into its permanent home; it continues to rent space from Rodef Shalom Congregation. And, even when it does eventually end up in its own building at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues, things will be different.
“It’s being designed by another organization,” he said. “So, to some extent, to some of our people, it’s not like we’re going back to our home and we’re in the driver’s seat. It’s going to be exactly what we want, exactly how we want. We’re going back to our home, but it’s going to be a new normal that we haven’t defined yet.”
There’s a huge learning curve for the future, Hausman said, mainly because the Tree of Life rebuilding project is breaking new ground. The plans call for a museum, a memorial, a synagogue and other features all housed under one roof.
“There’s no manual here,” he said. “This isn’t like repairing a transmission. We’re bound to make many mistakes in this process because there’s nothing to look at.”
Similar to Dor Hadash and New Light, the immediate past is helping to define the future for Tree of Life.
“We’re always going to be Zooming and streaming services,” he said. “When I was young, people went to services, it was the center of our community. It was our community center. This was where you met people and had life cycle events.”
Hausman said that he’s working with the board and Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers to stay ahead of the curve and that he views synagogue life more like a university now, where the curriculum is always changing and the institution is always looking for different avenues to reach people.
“If someone asked what the future is, my answer,” he said, “is I just don’t know because it’s never been done before.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.