In traditional Jewish practice, shiva culminates with the mourner rising, opening the door and walking outside. Re-entering life outdoors signifies a key moment in the aftermath of loss, burial and consolation, demonstrating that a new period has begun — though anyone who’s dealt with loss knows well the mourning continues, whatever the calendar might say.
The year 2019 was this community’s walk outdoors. Throughout the year, as our top stories show, efforts were made to return to life post-loss, but the road ahead wasn’t always discernible. Local events, national news stories, seemingly casual moments in each of our lives reignited sensations of pain, confusion, horror and even anger. There were potholes on the road to healing, and yet there was inspiration and joy, too. It was a year of grappling with the unimaginable, and then deciding to move forward with hope in our hearts.
Since 1962, this newspaper has chronicled the ups and downs of the Pittsburgh Jewish community. The year 2019 will go down as both one of the most troubled and one of the richest years in the community’s history, and we were honored to cover it. We look forward to serving as witness and narrator in the years to come.
Below, the top stories of 2019.
Polly Sheppard, a survivor of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, visited Pittsburgh for a private event with members of New Light Congregation. Sheppard recounted both the moments she spent with the white supremacist killer who murdered nine black worshippers and the years of healing that followed. Sheppard was one of several survivors of terror who came to Pittsburgh throughout the year.
After nearly six decades at 234 McKee Place in Oakland, the umbrella organization headed a mile and a half southwest to 2000 Technology Drive. With its abundance of natural light, movable furniture, multiple meeting spaces and parking spaces, Federation’s new home represents another chapter in an organization whose history dates back to 1912.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills announced the hiring of Rabbi Aaron Meyer, an Erie native, as the congregation’s next senior rabbi. Meyer, whose start date was July 1, succeeded Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler, who retired in 2018 after 38 years as the senior spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel. Rabbinical transitions continued, as months later Rabbi Cheryl Klein stepped down from serving Congregation Dor Hadash as lay cantor, and Rabbi Leonard Sarko assumed the pulpit at Congregation Emanu-El Israel (CEI) in Greensburg.
MARCH, APRIL & MAY
An independent volunteer committee, charged with allocating money donated to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Victims of Terror Fund, released a report explaining the distribution of nearly $6.3 million collected. The report noted recipients included victims’ families, survivors, officers and congregations, but stated: “No amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one’s life; no amount of money can fully compensate for a life that has been violently knocked off course and suddenly filled with unanticipated and daunting obstacles; and no amount of money can ever completely heal our hearts or our communities.”
In the closing weeks of April, community members gathered to mark the killing of Lori Gilbert-Kaye of Poway, California, and the murder of more than 250 people who died during a series of terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka. Gilbert-Kaye’s murder inside the seemingly safe space of a synagogue occurred exactly six months after the attack at the Tree of Life building.
During a public vigil at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein reiterated remarks made a half-year earlier at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, and said, “Unfortunately, they still resonate today. I’m sick and tired and frustrated and angry that I have to use them again.”
During a public vigil for those killed in Sri Lanka, nearly 200 community members traveled to Heinz Memorial Chapel in Oakland to observe Pittsburgh’s faith leaders offer ancestral prayers, lay a wreath and engage in collective song.
Prior to marking the attacks in California and Sri Lanka, members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community supported the Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a series of attacks on two mosques left 51 people dead. Months after the murders, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh sent more than $650,000 to Christchurch.
Mourning communal stalwarts
Sidney Busis, an accomplished otolaryngologist, died at 97. Busis served as president or chairman of organizations including Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Community Services, oversaw the establishment of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and was a board member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Busis’ wife, Sylvia, died at 94 nearly two months later. Sylvia Busis served as president of the Hillel Jewish University Center and chair of the University of Pittsburgh Israel Heritage Room Committee and worked with countless committees at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Milton Fine, a hotel magnate whose passion for the arts and Judaism enhanced the lives of Pittsburgh residents, died at 92. In 2007, Fine and his wife Sheila Reicher established the Fine Foundation, which supports projects in arts and culture, Jewish life, science and medicine, primarily in the Pittsburgh region. To date, the Fine Foundation has provided more than $35 million in grants to more than 350 nonprofits.
Following the events of Oct. 27, 2018, representatives from Pittsburgh’s Jewish burial societies performed unimaginable tasks, which they talked about after traveling to Colorado for the 17th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference.
Participating in the conference was a chance to prepare others, said Malke Frank, co-founder of the New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh: “We were suggesting they go back to their synagogue and talk with their caring committee or rabbi or chevra members and work through a plan to deal with the issue should it ever happen, to discuss within a congregational framework death and traditional Jewish practices and to forge relationships with other Jewish communal organizations, like we did, so people already have a tradition of working together.”
Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh celebrates 75 years
Seventy-five years ago the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh began a venture rarely seen outside of New York City. In 1943, after Rabbi Sholom Posner moved to Pittsburgh, he opened the city’s first Jewish day school. Since then, the school has educated thousands. Current enrollment is approximately 450 students. “We have the boys’ school, the girls’ school and the preschool. It goes from 6 weeks old all the way through high school,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld.
Tisha B’Av in Pittsburgh marked by demonstration and mourning
A group of about 100 people marked the traditional day of mourning outside Pittsburgh’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office, on the South Side, trying to call attention to the mistreatment of migrants and refugees. Rabbis Jeremy Markiz and Mark Asher Goodman organized the public program, which included reflections, readings, songs and a shofar blast.
Throughout the year, members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community took to the streets to voice displeasure. In May, nearly 350 people marched against gun violence from Temple Sinai to Schenley Park. Five months later, 14 Jewish activists from Bend the Arc were arrested after protesting a visit to the Steel City by President Donald J. Trump.
A public art project jointly sponsored by Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation welcomed more than 200 entries from students 18 and younger. There were 101 pieces that were ultimately chosen for printing on the decorative windscreens, which replaced a collection of tarps on the chain-link fence in front of the building.
The sidewalk gallery was a testament to support received, said Tree of Life board member Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg: “In the aftermath of the attack, our neighbors, our city, people were so loving and so kind, they rushed to our side and supported us. We received so much art – sculptures and paintings and sketches, quilts and knittings – it was impressive how many people turned to art to express their feelings to us.”
The 10.27 Healing Partnership, a newly created Pittsburgh Resiliency Center, opened to the community. Maggie Feinstein, director of the center, described it as “a safety net, that is supposed to be able to provide services and activities that are not already provided in the community and make sure we are able to attend to the needs of people in the aftermath” of the attack at the Tree of Life building. The Squirrel Hill-based center is located at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and is free to anyone in need of its services.
Thousands marked the one-year commemoration of the attack at the Tree of Life building by volunteering, studying Torah and attending a public program at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. Throughout the day, the words “remember,” “repair” and “together” were used as a tagline for the numerous events, including dedicated reflection and Torah study at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, delivering cookies to first responders, serving lunch to those in need and cleaning nearby cemeteries. The public memorial in Oakland, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, served as a capstone to the day’s events.
In an effort to raise $14 million for its 2020 campaign, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh hosted a conversation with acclaimed chefs Michael Solomonov and Kevin Sousa at Rivers Casino. The evening afforded attendees the chance to hear Solomonov, a former Pittsburgher and multiple James Beard Award-winner, field questions from Sousa, a Pittsburgh native and James Beard Award semifinalist.
The Solomon and Sarah Goldberg House, a Community Living Arrangement on Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill, marked its fifth birthday. For half a decade, with the help of Jewish Residential Services and the Verland Foundation, Goldberg House has provided Jason Baker, Kevin Ginsburg and Max Steinberg a permanent living space with 24-hour care where Shabbat and Jewish holidays are celebrated. Similar to their work at Goldberg House, JRS and Verland are planning a second CLA in Squirrel Hill. The Mt. Royal Road house will again provide three individuals with intellectual disabilities a chance to enjoy a safe, well-maintained home, and the prospect of greater communal integration. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.