Beneath an overcast sky and surrounded by brightly colored autumn trees, hundreds of people gathered to remember the 11 Jewish men and women killed three years ago in the deadliest antisemitic attack in United States history.
Members of the Jewish community, local and state officials, first responders, clergy, former Pittsburgh Steeler Brett Keisel, the Consul General of Israel in New York and the larger Pittsburgh community together remembered the lives of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger, during a ceremony in Schenley Park coordinated by the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
The interfaith service was hosted by Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership and it began with the lighting of 11 candles by the victims’ families. Alan Hausman, vice president of Tree of Life Congregation, next honored the first responders and welcomed Lisa Withrow, who lit a candle in honor of her husband, Officer Jerrod Withrow, who died last summer after a battle with colon cancer. Withrow, as part of the South Hills Critical Incident Response Team, was one of the first responders to the shooting at the Tree of Life building.
In a voice that often broke with emotion, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers chanted El Malei Rahamim, a traditional prayer for the souls of the departed. After reading the English translation of the prayer, and the names of the 11 people who were killed, his voice filled with rage as he said those killed were murdered while sanctifying the name of God.
Both of Pittsburgh’s chevra kadishas (Jewish burial societies) were represented at the ceremony. Malke Frank and Jonathan Schachter of the New Community Chevra Kadisha, read the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by the Israeli poet Zelda. Rabbi Elisar Admon, of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim, recited Psalm 23.
Ha’Zamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir performed two pieces: “Shalom Aleichem” and “B’shana Ha-Baha.”
Each of the three congregations that lost members during the massacre read pieces commonly used in their own services. Carol Black and Barbara Caplan of New Light Congregation read Psalm 97; Congregation Dor Hadash’s Marty Gaynor and Dan Leger read the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” and Psalm 122; and Kara Spodek of Tree of Life read “10.27 Poem” by Shana Haus.
More than a dozen survivors and witnesses of the shooting took the stage and together recited “This Is My Prayer.” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor William Peduto recited the familiar “A Prayer for Our Country” — the same prayer they shared at the 2019 commemoration of the massacre at Soldiers & Sailors Hall and Museum.
An interfaith cadre of clergy offered various remarks of solidarity. The group included Imam Chris Caras of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh; Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh Rev. Canon Natalie L.G. Hall; Rev. Vincent Kolb of the Sixth Presbyterian Church; Center of Life’s Pastor Tim Smith; and Rabbi Ron Symons of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
Brian Schrieber, the JCC’s president and CEO, chanted the prayer for healing, “Mi Sheberach,” before Eric Lidji of the Rauh Jewish Archives concluded the commemoration.
“Today we come together in person, as individuals and as a community, to remind ourselves that we are commanded to remember them and remind ourselves that we have accepted the commandment to remember them,” Lidji said.
Pittsburgh’s Jewish community continues to work through a long healing process, Schreiber told the Chronicle prior to the event.
“I think three years in, we have a different opportunity to reflect,” Schreiber said. “We’re not just reacting from the shock and the trauma but we’re beginning to think about what this means in terms of long term, and having the opportunity to reflect and see who are we, what do we want to be, what do we learn from this and how do we move forward.”
Peduto said Pittsburghers now feel more solidarity than before the Oct. 27, 2018 massacre.
“At the least, Pittsburghers take a pause before they mention or think of someone as being different,” Peduto told the Chronicle. “You know, the city was built out by rivers and mountains that separated us and we built that out by different ethnic groups. There was always this cultural divide. After Tree of Life, we really understood that an attack against one was an attack against all. I believe that was a cultural shift.”
Fitzgerald called the massacre “one of the darkest days in our history,” and a moment no one will forget. He noted the community has invested in the security of synagogues and other institutions and is now more prepared than it was three years ago.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has played a large role in helping Jewish institutions upgrade their security, said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing. Pittsburgh was a safe city prior to the attack, he said, and is a safer city now.
“We’ve made great strides in security and safety,” Hertzman said. “I think the biggest change has been the individual improvements to building security, a lot of which were from local state and federal dollars that Federation helped procure.”
This year’s commemoration was in person, after being held virtually last year because of COVID-19. Feinstein said the Schenley Park site was selected because it was outdoors and was accessible to older adults and people with disabilities.
Earlier this year, 17-year-old Taylor Allderdice High School student Olivia (last name withheld upon request) raised funds to plant 11 trees on Prospect Drive — the location ultimately selected for the commemoration. She said she wanted to do something that could help create a private space for the families.
“Trees mean a lot in Judaism,” she said. “They represent life and death. It seemed fitting for it to be trees.”
Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said it was “beautiful” to stand with hundreds of friends and remember the 11 loved ones taken from the community too soon.
Even in the face of mounting antisemitism, she said, there are reasons to be hopeful: “As we saw, we have allies in Pittsburgh who will work with us to counter hate and build a better world.”
Barry Werber, a member of New Light Congregation who survived the attack, was pleased the outdoor commemoration allowed him to see other survivors and victims’ families and “to come together as a community. It was wonderful to see different groups getting out and supporting us, and, especially, the family members.”
Tree of Life’s Myers said what he found most comforting was the hugging.
“We didn’t have any hugging last year — [the commemoration] was prerecorded,” he said. “A good, deep, intense hug is, to me, the most powerful piece of unspoken communication that exists. It can say so many things without a person saying a word. There’s a power to it. We all know that after a deep hug, you feel better.
“The power of community to be together is incredible, particularly in Pittsburgh, which is just an incredible city,” Myers added. “But the power of hugging and uplifting each other, it’s just so assuring and gives me strength.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.