The Pittsburgh Jewish community is painfully aware of the anti-Semitic attack of October 27, 2018, in which congregations Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light lost a combined total of 11 beautiful souls; another seven people were wounded. In the immediate aftermath of the assault, supportive messages and objects of consolation seemed to appear, magically or miraculously, in a sprawling sidewalk memorial, and were a great comfort to the afflicted congregations and the community at large.
Later, however, we realized that the gifts of condolence were neither magical nor miraculous, but rather the handiwork of good people whose hearts ached for our loss. Their instincts were humanitarian: to do something tangible to let us know that we were not alone, that they mourned with us, and that together we would survive and eventually thrive again. As proclaimed by the signs appearing all over the neighborhood – ubiquitous even today – we are “Stronger Together” and “Stronger than Hate.”
Over time, we had discovered backstories to some of the anonymous contributions to the makeshift memorial, and in every case, knowing their origin stories made already touching items even more poignant. As we recover, we are able to think more about others than ourselves, and we are interested in knowing what moved individuals to leave artifacts among the flowers. What were their intended messages for us and/or for visitors to the memorial; what did the act of choosing or creating their gift and leaving it at the sidewalk mean to them? Some have obvious messages and relevance, whereas others are intriguing precisely because their intent is less clear.
Thus was born the stories collection project. We re-examined items, looking for clues to their donors. Some we tracked down; others had left gifts anonymously, so we reached out to the public via social media and the press, directing people to a webpage where they could upload their stories. That site is still open at www.treeoflifepgh.org/stories.
The centerpiece of the memorial were 11 white wooden Stars of David, each bearing the name of a victim, which materialized on the synagogue property barely 24 hours after the shooting. Astute observers noticed that the stars were affixed to white wooden crosses. They were the creation of Gregory Zanis, a carpenter from Aurora, Illinois and the founder of Crosses for Losses, whose mission was to erect crosses in honor of victims of mass shootings. I had the privilege of interviewing Zanis twice during my research into the stories behind the makeshift memorial and found him a compassionate man who had found his calling in trying to bring some measure of comfort and peace to communities suffering from gun violence.
Zanis’ motivation was his strong Greek-Orthodox Christian faith, which deeply reveres the Old Testament. Zanis recalled witnessing acts of anti-Semitism and racism in his youth and rejected them as antithetical to his profound religious beliefs. He had made individual Stars of David for Jewish victims among those of previous massacres, but never for an attack whose victims were exclusively Jewish. He was hesitant at first, worried about inadvertently making a cultural misstep. His wife convinced him that he must honor the Pittsburgh victims, insisting that “excluding them would itself be an ‘act of hate.’”
His friend Anne Rosenberg, who met Zanis a year earlier at the Las Vegas shooting site, where she had brought therapy dogs, similarly argued that no one but he could honor the victims in the manner which mourners at these terrible events have come to expect. The day after the attack, Rosenberg and her colleagues from Crisis Response Canines met Zanis upon his arrival in Squirrel Hill, where he felt conspicuously out of place in his Crosses for Losses truck. He parked a few blocks away from the synagogue and walked the perimeter for more than an hour, until he felt he knew where God wanted him to place the stars: behind the police tape and directly in front of the synagogue building, where some flowers and stones already lay. When he returned to his truck, confused passersby asked him, “Don’t you know the victims are all Jewish?” They were overcome when he showed them the stars, and asked to assist Rosenberg’s team in off-loading and carrying them to the site.
Zanis was relieved to have members of the local Jewish community help install the stars. As the procession moved toward the synagogue, other onlookers joined in. Rosenberg recalled making an effort to ensure that those who identified themselves as friends or relatives of a specific victim were able to help carry their loved one’s star. Zanis carried the last one, carefully holding the cross side against his chest, so only the Star of David was visible.
Talking about his contribution to the memorial, Zanis returned repeatedly to two themes. The first was that he was doing God’s work and sought no personal attention; he revealed that during the 20 years of his Crosses for Losses activity, from 2000 to 2020, every U.S. president had requested meetings and photographs with him at one of the sites, and that he had rebuffed them all. The second was his concern that he might have unintentionally offended the Jewish community by simply showing up with the stars. He seemed genuinely relieved to hear that the congregations cherished and appreciated his contribution, and that the horizontal bars of the crosses on which the stars were mounted created shelves on which visitors could pile little stones – a traditional Jewish mourning custom. They were perfect.
After 20 years, 800,000 miles and more than 27,000 crosses, Mr. Zanis retired in December of 2019, citing the emotional toll of the endeavor. He assumed that his constant fatigue and frequent pain were the result of too many nights sleeping in his truck en route to mass murder sites and his perpetual immersion in incidents of tragedy and death. In March of 2020, however, he received a diagnosis of bladder cancer and passed away on May 4, 2020. Lutheran Church Charities of Northbrook, Illinois, is continuing the Crosses for Losses project. With Greg Zanis’ death, the Jewish community has lost a quiet friend. May his memory be for a blessing. PJC
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg is on faculty in the History Department at Carnegie Mellon University and a board member of Tree of Life Congregation. This piece is an excerpt from her essay, “Sharing their Stories: Reciprocating the Compassionate Response to the Tree of Life Massacre,” which will appear in “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji, forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press this fall.