Hillel JUC commemorates Pittsburgh synagogue shooting
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Oct. 27 shootingStudents remember

Hillel JUC commemorates Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

This year’s commemoration was especially poignant for many of the seniors who were in Pittsburgh during the attack but may not be in Pittsburgh next year.

Students commemorate the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life building at a Havdalah service at Hillel JUC on Oct. 23, 2021. (Photo by Dan Marcus)
Students commemorate the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life building at a Havdalah service at Hillel JUC on Oct. 23, 2021. (Photo by Dan Marcus)

There is no Hebrew word for history.

That’s what Dan Marcus, executive director of Hillel Jewish University Center, told students at a Havdalah service marking the third yahrzeit of the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The word for memory, zachar, is used instead, he said, and it is a Jewish tradition for people to share their own experiences of a given event and how it affected them, relying on each other for support and healing.

Students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University gathered at the Hillel building on Saturday evening, Oct. 23, for the commemoration service — which combined traditional Havdalah elements with mourning rituals — led by Hillel’s senior Jewish educator, Stefanie Greene. Students began by lighting 11 yahrzeit candles for the victims. The candle holders, each a unique glass design, were crafted by Hillel students for the one-year commemoration of the attack back in 2019.

Students at Hillel JUC lit 11 yahrzeit candles in memory of the 11 people killed in the Tree of Life building. (Photo by Dionna Dash)

After reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish together, students shared stories and memories of Oct. 27, 2018, expressing gratitude for the support of the Pittsburgh Jewish community in the weeks following the attack at the Tree of Life building.

“Hillel’s role in the community during times of grief and remembrance is simple,” Marcus said. “Hillel is here to care.”

Students said they felt that sense of communal comfort during the Havdalah service.

“I was hoping to have a place to feel some solidarity with other people who experienced the shooting, and I got that from tonight,” said Julia Szwalbenest, a senior at Pitt who was on campus as a freshman on Oct. 27, 2018.

Szwalbenest spent last year away from campus during the pandemic. She said that the day she most missed her Jewish campus community was the date of the yahrzeit of the victims in 2020.

“I’m thankful to be back in Pittsburgh for the commemoration this year,” she said. “Last year, it almost felt hard to remember everything that had happened. I felt disconnected.”

That renewal of connection was one of Greene’s main goals in designing the Havdalah service.

“We are three years removed and there’s been student turnover in that time; really only the seniors were here in 2018,” she said. “I wanted to create a space for students to both commemorate the lives that were lost and to be able to come and talk about the experience they had with the shooting in their own communities, whether they were here or elsewhere in the country.”

For Eva Shterengarts, who was a freshman at Pitt in 2018, hearing different perspectives made her feel less isolated in her mourning.

“It was powerful to listen to everyone’s recollections and how impactful the event had been even for those not in Pittsburgh at the time,” said Shterengarts, who serves as Hillel’s student president. “I felt not only my own grief, but the grief of other students who were both in Pittsburgh and in other parts of the country.”

This year’s commemoration was especially poignant for many of the seniors who were in Pittsburgh during the attack but may not be in Pittsburgh next year. Shterengarts remembers the attack as a defining moment in her Jewish journey through college.

“As a freshman, the shooting helped me realize that I emotionally and spiritually needed a Jewish community in my life for support,” she said. “Growing up, I’d never had this kind of community in my life and trying to process all the emotions I was feeling that day on my own was just too much, so I turned to Hillel.”

Throughout the week, Hillel continued to host events commemorating the shooting, including initiatives to increase kindness on campus and a text study about acts of resilience in Jewish scripture.

“We want a public display of care, love and hope at this time,” Greene said. “We’re trying to create a space for healing, remembrance and community.” PJC

Dionna Dash is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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