Every day seems like Sunday morning, Oct. 28, 2018. The day before, Oct. 27, was filled with horror and grief. But that Sunday — and every day afterward — started with one question: What do we, as the leaders of New Light Congregation, do now?
New Light Congregation was not immune to challenges. The previous year, 2017, we faced a difficult decision. We were in financial distress. Do we close our doors or seek a new path as a renter? We opted to rent; and we were lucky because the area synagogues in Squirrel Hill had plenty of extra room to accommodate our needs. New surroundings, yet the same.
New Light has never been an activist congregation. We made it a policy many years ago not to invite politicians as event speakers. We do not issue endorsements and rarely issue press releases and posts on our website of our reactions to the daily issues of life in America. Our outreach was personal, as in our long-term relationship with the Rodman Street Baptist Church in East Liberty.
Our focus is, and has been, directed at fostering a Jewish community focused on worship and G-d. Through a community linked by ritual, each and every member of our congregation can be refreshed each week to face the daily challenges of life. Through a community linked by ritual can life events be made sensible.
But Oct. 27 was different. The three congregations housed together in the Tree of Life building — Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light — suffered 11 irreplaceable losses. With the death of Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Melvin Wax, New Light lost our lay religious leaders. These men, under the leadership of our rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, led our services, populated our choir and managed our events. These men were the beating heart of our community linked by ritual.
Four individuals pointed the way forward. Rabbi Perlman, himself a survivor and hero, ensured that our rituals continued unabated. Jeff Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, provided direction to all three congregations on the tasks needed to ensure continuation; David Shapira, Federation board member and chairman of the Giant Eagle Corporation, brought the larger issues of the event into clear focus through fair and open discussion; and Debby Firestone — along with the entire board of Congregation Beth Shalom — welcomed us into their home and accommodated our every need.
But it is Jewish ritual, specifically the ritual of grieving, that offers a way forward. The rules are ancient:
• Aninut: the period from death to burial;
• Shiva: the first seven days of mourning;
• Sheloshim: the first 30 days of mourning;
• Yud-bet Chodesh: the 12 Hebrew months following the day of death; and
• Yahrzeit: the anniversary date of death per the Hebrew calendar. It is customary to place a monument (matzeviah) on a grave, dedicating it in a brief ceremony, known as unveiling, which usually takes place within a year after the death.
The end of 2018 and all of 2019 blurred together as we passed through the first four stages, housed yet again in new surroundings, asking: How do we comfort the families of the victims, the survivors, and the congregation? How do we remember the deceased? How do we recreate that community linked by ritual without its leaders? How do we remember? How do we commemorate?
This year, 2020, we began to answer those questions. We made permanent our commitment to our new home in the Helfant Chapel of Beth Shalom. We found within our members the individuals to assist in continuing the rituals so fundamental to us all. And we began to identify concrete steps to commemorate those innocent lives needlessly torn from us.
We created physical memorials to our lost congregants: a memorial monument (donated by John Dioguardi of Rome Monuments) and a pear tree (a “Survivor Tree” donated by the 911 Memorial and Museum) at our cemetery; a memorial board in Helfant Chapel; and an entire building (with funding from the Sylvia and Martin Snow Foundation and the thousands of individuals from throughout the nation and the world who donated to the congregations after Oct. 27, 2018) dedicated to the history of New Light and those we lost.
The process of grieving never ends. It is custom to visit the graves of our loved ones at least once a year. This commemorative season we are dedicating, as a congregation, those physical memorials to those we lost. On the 18th of Heshvan (Nov. 5) and the following weekend, our members will gather together in person and on Zoom to remember, to reflect, and to honor the memory of Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Melvin Wax as we unveil the Memorial Board in Helfant Chapel, the Memorial Monument at our cemetery and view the almost-complete Memorial Chapel being erected at the cemetery.
We have begun the long and never-ending process of healing, creating those physical spaces needed to allow our members to remember and reflect — in spirit and in action — on those we have lost. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life. PJC
Barbara Caplan and Stephen Cohen are co-presidents of New Light Congregation.