Immediately following Oct. 27, 2018, the story of the terrorist attack at the Tree of Life building began to be told. Recounted by survivors and family members of victims, first responders, city officials and clergy, the memories were harrowing and heart-wrenching, but they hardly told the whole story.
The effect of the attack was felt not just by this intimate group but by the entire city — Jews and non-Jews alike. Its broad impact on a diverse community is what Aliza Becker and Noah Schoen are trying to preserve with The Meanings of October 27, an oral history project that explores Pittsburghers’ reflections on the shooting.
Becker, a Chicago native, spent Oct. 27 talking to Jewish friends who reached out to her to express their concern. But it was a non-Jewish friend asking how she could help that created a viral moment for Becker on social media. Becker responded by saying, “All of your Jewish friends are struggling today. Reach out to them and let them know you care.”
Because of her response, Becker was asked to speak at a vigil in her neighborhood and deliver a d’var Torah at her synagogue during a service that included a eulogy by Ori Fienberg for his Aunt Joyce, who was murdered in the shooting.
It was during this service that Becker realized she had no idea how Pittsburgh was reacting to the shooting.
“I didn’t know what they were thinking, what they were feeling,” she said. “What was it like to be in the place where this thing happened and it’s not OK to go back to work tomorrow?”
Becker, an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, was already working on an oral history project and thought one might be needed in Pittsburgh to capture the stories of the tragedy.
She reached out to Schoen, asking if he would like to work with her on the project. Schoen had recently completed a stint as a community organizer in Boston as a fellow for JOIN for Justice, a national organization that trains, supports and connects Jewish organizers and communities. He agreed.
The pair spent time planning the project and worked to ensure what they were doing was sensitive to the trauma from the event.
Between February and July 2019, they met with more than 50 Pittsburghers. Although they didn’t record the initial interviews, the talks helped frame the project. One piece of advice they heard repeatedly was, “Take it slow.”
After the initial listening sessions, Becker and Schoen assembled a group of community leaders to shape the project. The group includes Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh director Lauren Bairnsfather, Community Day School Head of School Avi Baran Munro, Jewish Assistance Fund Executive Director Cindy Goodman-Leib, Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives director Eric Lidji and other community leaders.
The interviews are between one-and-a-half to three hours in length and are a collaboration between narrator and interviewee, according to Schoen. And each interview is unique.
“I ask open-ended questions and leave space after they finish speaking,” Schoen said. “It opens this fresh space where they are not just recounting stories but thinking and developing fresh ideas in the moment together. It helps people to feel ‘I’m in charge of my own story.’”
Each session begins by exploring the individual’s life history because, as Schoen pointed out, “their lives didn’t begin on Oct. 27.”
“We realized there were certain areas people were thinking about: anti-Semitism, safety, the importance of relationships with non-Jews, so we ask about those things,” Schoen said, “but each interview follows its own path.”
When complete, each person gets a copy of their interview, and the relationship doesn’t end once the recording is over. Becker and Schoen are hosting several gatherings where interested interviewees can meet in a social setting and share their reflections and experiences.
Such get-togethers are part of the vision of the project: “When we listen to the interviews, we start talking to each other in a different way. Something really special and intimate starts happening.”
The interviewees, said Becker, have “an amazing experience and want to keep having these connections. That’s the purpose.”
The pair plan to interview 100 people for The Meanings of October 27; they’re fundraising for the project now. (Anyone interested in donating can do so at bit.ly/meaningsofoctober27.)
Once completed, both audio recordings and transcripts of the interviews will be stored at the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. But the interviews will be relevant beyond Pittsburgh, as well.
“Yes, it’s about Pittsburgh but it’s also about using the Pittsburgh experience in our lives,” Becker said. “These are key issues. There’s something here that, because of the depth of what people went through, is so powerful for everyone.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.