Squirrel Hill Limps Toward Healing


Pittsburgh — It was a week of striking symbols: Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation here wearing a Star of David necklace with some of its points cut off — an open wound.

It was a week of tender mercies: A Pittsburgh police officer standing guard over a makeshift memorial to the victims — piles of flowers,  signs and a cluster of candles that struggled to burn through a light drizzle. “I’ve been trying to keep them lit,” he said.

It was a week of political drama: Thousands of Pittsburgh Jews signing a letter to President Trump urging him not to visit their Squirrel Hill neighborhood, site of the deadliest attack on Jews in the nation’s history, until he strongly denounced white nationalism.

It was a week of heartbreaking images: The rabbis of the three congregations that shared space at the bloodied Tree of Life Congregation — together they lost 11 souls — huddled together on the stage at Sunday evening’s packed-to-overflowing interfaith vigil, each bent slightly toward the other in a tight circle, as if they were holding each other up.

It was a week of heightened security and stepped-up police presence, a harsh incongruity on the tree-lined streets here: roving patrols of officers on motorcycles and bicycles monitoring the comings and goings at synagogues and on the streets; security personnel guarding synagogues and preschools; the FBI working out of the Jewish Community Center.

And everywhere there were hugs: Hugs outside Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall after the moving vigil that featured local Christian, Muslim and Sikh clerics, Pittsburgh’s mayor, Israeli government officials and a soulful gospel choir. Hugs — long, don’t-let-go hugs — at a kosher restaurant at lunchtime two days after the carnage. Hugs between strangers who came from far away to bring comfort and bear witness.

The Jews of this tight-knit and historic community said goodbye Tuesday morning to the first three victims — brothers with special needs who were kind and beloved fixtures at Tree of Life and a doctor who cared for his patients with the utmost concern — in what will be an achingly long string of funerals. And, as they grieve together and remember the brothers’ smiles, they are struggling to make sense of their loss, and to find a way back to some normalcy.

‘You will be remembered for your seat will be empty’

On Tuesday morning at the Jewish Community Center, more than 600 people packed into the auditorium, gym and lobby to pay respects to Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a 66-year-old family physician and member of Congregation Dor Hadash who was killed as he tried to care for an injured congregant last Saturday morning.

The funeral opened with a responsive reading: Baruch dayan emet, blessed is the judge of truth. Adonai natan, adonai lakach, God gives, and God takes. Yehi shem adonai mevorach leolam vaed, may the name of the Lord be blessed forever and ever.

Dr. Rabinowitz was remembered by lifelong friend Mark Sarver as “funny, kind, studious, and attentive.”

“Jerry was as committed to humanity as he was to excellence,” said Sarver. Dr. Kenneth Ciesielka, with whom Dr. Rabinowitz opened a private medical practice, remembered their work treating patients with HIV before the disease was well understood.

“When word spread that we were ready, willing, and able to treat AIDs patients, we became the largest AIDs practice in the county,” said Dr. Ciesielka. “That was our finest hour.”

Dor Hadash’s president, Ellen Surloff, wore a bow tie in honor of Dr. Rabinowitz, who was known for his unique sartorial choice and the smile that never left his face. “I’ve never seen someone look so happy while pouring Dixie cups,” Surloff said as she recalled the way he prepared the kiddush spread on Saturday mornings. Dr. Rabinowitz always sat at the same seat at Shabbat morning Torah study, she said, and she so enjoyed studying Torah with the Rabbi Sacks commentary. She quoted Samuel I in tribute: “You will be remembered for your seat will be empty.”

“Jerry’s death should be a call for all of us to model his compassion and urgency to heal the world,” said Rabbi Cheryl Klein.

‘Squirrel Hill will never be the same’

Even for community members who did not know the victims personally, the week was wrenching. After Sunday night’s emotional interfaith vigil, community members lingered, hugging friends and neighbors, still in disbelief at what had befallen their community.

“The idea that this could have happened in our wonderful Squirrel Hill is so beyond what any of us could ever imagine,” said Lynne Snyderman, a Squirrel Hill native who still lives in her childhood home, after the vigil. “Pittsburgh will survive and the Jewish community will survive, but Squirrel Hill will never be the same.”

Dozens of Pittsburgh natives living elsewhere flocked to their hometown to grieve with the community. Jeffrey Solomon, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and now lives in New York, flew in on Sunday to attend the vigil and planned to come back for the funerals of those he knew.

“My parents could have been there and it could have been me,” said Solomon, speaking of his friends who lost parents in the shooting. “And in many ways I feel like it is.”

Though not a member of Tree of Life, Chuck Perlow had fond memories of the synagogue, having grown up in the house next door. “My house actually faced the stained-glass windows in the back, so our Friday nights were beautiful because the windows would shine out, not in, so we’d have this gorgeous view,” he told The Jewish Week after morning services on Monday at Congregation Poale Zedeck.

Perlow was out of town on Saturday and said it was hard being away when tragedy struck so close to home. “It was just devastating to know that that could happen in your backyard, literally in your backyard.”

Paul Seltman, who grew up down the street from Tree of Life, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, drove in from Washington, D.C., on Monday to attend the Tuesday funeral for the Rosenthal brothers, whom he knew growing up. “It’s easy to feel disconnected from these kinds of events unless you go to them,” said Seltman. “The reality is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s someone you know or your own synagogue.”

‘People could hear the sirens’

“People could hear the sirens throughout the davening on Shabbos morning,” said Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck. The congregation learned of the attack during Shabbat morning services, just as worshippers were putting away the Torahs. “There’s a certain déjà vu to a communal adrenaline that we’re used to feeling,” said Rabbi Yolkut, comparing the community’s response to the attack on Tree of Life to its reaction to larger-scale events like 9/11 and the attacks of the second intifada that rocked Israel. “I think for engaged Jews, it’s shocking that it’s on your doorstep, but it’s strangely familiar.”

At Congregation Shaarei Torah, worshipers were celebrating a bar mitzvah when they heard police cars speed past the building. By the time Rabbi Daniel Wasserman heard the third police car, he knew something serious was happening. After Shabbat ended, he waited at Tree of Life along with members of the Orthodox chevra kadisha (burial society) of which he is a leader, to ensure that the bodies of the victims would be dealt with in accordance with Jewish law. Since early Sunday morning, the bodies have been accompanied by members of the group. Though the group has never dealt with an incident of this scale, Wasserman is confident it can care for the bodies with honor. “Whatever we’re called to do, we’ll do,” he said.

Return to normality

As the community looks ahead to the days, weeks and months after the funerals and shivas end, and after the glare of the national media fades, the question of security weighs heavily on the minds of rabbis and community leaders.

“I’m sorry to say that every house of worship right now — churches, mosques, Sikh temples, Hindu temples — everyone has to be looking at how do we make it harder for this kind of thing to happen,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson of Beth Shalom Congregation, a large Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill. “In every synagogue in Europe, there are multiple armed guards. I don’t want that to be the case, I want our doors to be open, I want us to welcome people.”

Still, he said, people needed to be “realistic” about security. “That’s pikuach nefesh, that’s saving a life.”

After the final funeral, scheduled for Friday, congregants from Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash, who worshiped in the same synagogue, will likely join with Beth Shalom for services this Shabbat, as the Tree of Life building remains closed while police continue to process evidence. Congregants from the three congregations have joined Beth Shalom for packed weekday morning and evening services this week, where Rabbi Adelson led the room in psalms and a communal Kaddish.

“People are looking right now for some kind of connection, they want to know that they’re with their community. … People need the framework, they need the structure; that’s exactly what our tradition is for,” said Rabbi Adelson. “We live fairly comfortable lives today and the lives of our ancestors were much harder. … Death was much more present and so the structure of our liturgy is really helpful.”

The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh reopened on Monday morning, offering its regular schedule of exercise classes and family programs as the FBI continued to base its operations there.

“The thing that we’ve been hearing, learning, from people who are experienced with this kind of situation is that the more normalness you can provide for folks, the better they begin to process and begin the healing process,” said Cathy Samuels, the JCC’s senior director of development and communications. “I think the normality of what we can provide will be very crucial to the community continuing to heal.”

Volunteers and witnesses

From around the country, people who have never been to Pittsburgh have streamed into the city to offer support and bear witness to the suffering of the community here.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association, arrived on Monday on a one-way ticket. “You have to get up and go and hope that through our caring presence that we can help people through this terrible time,” she said.

“I wanted to make sure that the Jewish community of Pittsburgh knows that all of our rabbis care about them and are praying for them and want to support them.”

And yet the details of the horror from last Shabbat morning are still fresh in people’s minds.

Andrea Wedner, 61, who was wounded in last week’s shooting, had been sitting in the last row of the congregation with her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, when they heard gunshots being fired as the gunman roamed throughout the building shooting anyone he saw.

Her cousin, Philip Diamond of Melville, L.I., described the shooting Monday night to an estimated 2,000 people who attended a Suffolk County solidarity rally at the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center. He said he learned the details from speaking with his cousin’s husband, Ron.

“They heard the shots but didn’t realize it was gunfire,” Diamond said. “When he finally came into their room, my cousin and her mother both turned in the direction from which the bullets were being fired. My cousin instinctively raised her arm, trying somewhat to cover herself and her mother, and was immediately shot by a bullet that passed through her bicep, and by shrapnel that hit her wrist. Simultaneously — and unimaginably — Rose was shot in the face, hopefully dying instantly. To make matters worse, Andrea had to initially sit there trying to look dead until the shooter had been neutralized and those very brave first responders were able to get to her and take her to the hospital.”

Although Wedner is expected to make a full recovery, Diamond said her husband told him: “Physically she will recover, but I don’t know if she will ever recover after seeing her mother murdered in the place she thought to be the safest place in the world.”

On Tuesday, as the funerals commenced, the light drizzle of the day before had given way to clear blue skies. At the makeshift memorial near Tree of Life, the pile of flowers was growing, still. n

Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.