Where The Pain Is Still Fresh, And The Loss Is Still Local


Pittsburgh — In Squirrel Hill, reminders of the shooting that took the lives of 11 synagogue-goers last year are everywhere. In the signs on lawns proclaiming the community “Stronger Together” or “Stronger Than Hate.” In the poster bearing the 11 names hanging in the window of the kosher grocery store. But it’s most evident in the faces of the victims’ families when you run into them by chance, as I did outside the Giant Eagle supermarket and in front of the Tree of Life building.

Over the past year, Jews across the country have grappled with the meaning of what happened at that synagogue building last October. “Pittsburgh,” once synonymous with the rise, fall and rise again of the Rust Belt, has come to represent increasing anti-Semitism and renewed anxieties about the place of Jews in American society, turning the city into a metonym for everything fraught about Jewish existence in 2019.

What happened here a year ago has sparked national conversations about synagogue security and led to the installation of armed guards in Jewish buildings. It has sounded the alarm on white supremacy and its dangers to Jews and other minorities. And it has raised questions about what can be done, if anything, to change the situation rather than simply react to it.

But in the city itself, the meaning of the last year is different and still being shaped. In Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood for over a century — where you can hardly drive a block without passing a synagogue — the pain is still fresh and the loss is still local. As the national Jewish community has moved on to parsing what the most horrific attack on Jews on American soil means in the context of Jewish history, here in Pittsburgh, it’s also a story of local mourning.

As the date of the shooting, Oct. 27, approaches, Pittsburghers are wondering how they will move on.

“It’s one year, the trauma doesn’t end at one year — this is going to be here forever,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “It’s a marker in time, but it’s not the end of a process.”

‘Will We Say Their Names Forever?’

At the time of the shooting, New Light Congregation, a Conservative synagogue and one of the three congregations that met in the Tree of Life building, was about to celebrate its first year praying there. In 2017, congregants had marched their Torah scrolls from their former home, which had become too costly for their dwindling and aging membership to maintain, to the Tree of Life building.

In November last year, after the shooting, they moved again, out of necessity but with less fanfare. They relocated to Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh’s largest Conservative synagogue, bringing their Torahs with them a second time. They quickly decided that the move needed to feel more or less permanent, so they brought the congregation’s memorial plaques to Beth Shalom’s building to keep the memory of lost loved ones nearby.

“The object was to make a home,” said Stephen Cohen, president of New Light.

Now they meet every morning for the daily minyan at Beth Shalom, along with members of Tree of Life, also a Conservative synagogue, and Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue that also met at Tree of Life. Every morning, someone reads the names of those who died on that Hebrew date. And every morning, after the list of yahrtzeit that change daily, comes the list that stays the same: the 11 victims of the massacre — Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

“I wonder if we’ll say the names forever,” Cindy Harris, a member of Tree of Life, said one morning after services. “Things changed after the 30 days, things changed after the 11 months,” she said, but she isn’t sure how people will feel after the first anniversary.

Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi of Beth Shalom, said they will stop reading the names after Nov. 16, the date of the first yahrtzeit on the Hebrew calendar. “The loss of the last year is very much in the room with us,” said Rabbi Adelson. “But we’re also fatigued by it.”

The loss of the 11 is also evident in their absence: Gone are familiar faces who would lead the service, open the ark, call out the page numbers, even tell a joke in the back of the synagogue during services. For Cohen, the president of New Light, questions about anti-Semitism and the vitriol in today’s politics are far from his mind. He spends his days contemplating the loss of his fellow congregants and the future of the community he now leads without them.

“To you, you have no identification with the people who died, they’re meaningless to you. Mel Wax, Dan Stein, Richard Gottfried, they’re letters on a page, they’re not even names, they’re less important than that. Because it didn’t happen to you, it happened to us,” said Cohen, his voice rising with emotion. “Richard Gottfried was the soul of our congregation. He led the service, he set the Torahs, he read the haftarah, he read the Torah, he was the choir. Anything to do with religion, that was Richard Gottfried. It’s shoes we can’t fill.”

Gottfried, 65, a popular dentist who was on the verge of retirement, was preparing food in the synagogue kitchen when the gunman opened fire.

“We’ve had to hire people because we don’t have Richard Gottfried. So why do we look upon this as a local issue?” Cohen asked, pausing for a breath. “Because our local people died.”

Prayers And Social Action

This Yom Kippur, members of Tree of Life and New Light included special commemorative prayers in their services. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life compiled poems and prayers into a new martyrology — a fixture of the afternoon service — in memory of the 11 victims. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light composed a new version of “Eileh Ezkarah,” a memorial prayer for martyred rabbis, this one honoring the 11 in the form of a rhyming Hebrew poem.

The liturgy connects the victims to a long history of anti-Semitism and memorial liturgy. That history motivated Daniel Yolkut, rabbi of the Modern Orthodox synagogue Poale Zedeck located just a few blocks away from Tree of Life, to write a new portion for the Yizkor service memorializing departed loved ones. This updated Yizkor prayer, in memory of the shooting victims, has been adopted by several congregations in Pittsburgh and in other cities.

Rabbi Yolkut noted that during the first week after the shooting, his synagogue added “Av Harachamim,” a prayer said on fast days and between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The prayer, which was composed after the First Crusade, was meant “to acknowledge that our pain and our loss was religiously significant the same way that medieval massacres and victims of terror in Israel were.”

At Dor Hadash, there were no special prayers. In the afternoon on Yom Kippur, a member of the Reconstructionist congregation who was injured in the attack, Dan Leger, spoke at an event at the JCC on the topic of forgiveness.

“We don’t add prayers, we add social action,” said Donna Coufal, president of Dor Hadash. Coufal said her synagogue wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr asking him not to seek the death penalty for the shooter.

“I mean, they call it political, but if somebody was sick and you tried to fix it, is it political? It seems to me like a moral imperative,” said Coufal. “If you’re talking about tikkun olam and repairing the world, this is how you do it.” When President Trump came to visit the synagogue in the days after the shooting, Dor Hadash made it clear that he was not welcome. “We’ve always been a strong social action congregation. We were members of HIAS, that’s why we were targeted,” she said, referring to the Jewish immigrant advocacy organization the shooter railed against in the days before the shooting.

At Heart, A Local Tragedy

In the days after the shooting, thousands of people made their way to the Tree of Life building bearing candles, flowers, stars of David, cards and posters in memory of the victims. Today, tarps with artwork by children from across the country decorate a fence blocking off the building, which sits empty except for a custodian, as the congregation decides what to do with the building. But all that remains of the shrine outside Tree of Life are police barriers and a few stars of David decorated by children. Rain has seeped in between the stars’ layers of cardboard and plastic lamination.

About two weeks after the attack, the shrine was dismantled by a team of volunteers and prepared for cataloguing at the Jewish history archives at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center. The collection of materials related to the attack, which includes items such as the programs distributed at a vigil held on October 28th, already constitutes more than twice the number of materials usually collected by the archive in a single year.

Objects from inside Tree of Life can be seen in photographs at another Pittsburgh museum. At the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, one photo in the current exhibit, by Emmai Alaquiva, shows Rabbi Myers looking through a bullet hole in a prayerbook. Another photo shows three hands resting on top of one another on top of a tallit. The hands belong to the wife, son and grandson of one of the victims of the shooting; the tallit was his, too.

For Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center, the exhibit is one of the ways she teaches local public school students why the Holocaust is still relevant today. Students were confused by the shooting at Tree of Life, said Bairnsfather. “They thought anti-Semitism wasn’t a present phenomenon,” she said.

The exhibit puts the shooting in the context of historic anti-Semitism, juxtaposing images of survivors of the shooting with survivors of the Holocaust. But it also connects the shooting at Tree of Life to other local gun violence through photos of black residents of Pittsburgh who have been shooting victims. “I made a presentation very soon after the 27th and I spoke to a school assembly, and it ended with Pittsburgh,” said Bairnsfather. “And then there were all these other mass shootings, so it needs to be updated all the time when I talk about all the different white supremacist-motivated mass shootings.”

In fact, as conversations about the future of the Tree of Life building begin, some are considering moving the Holocaust Center to the Tree of Life site. “We feel strongly that that’s the right response to what happened there,” said Bairnsfather.

Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz Center, said what story the Tree of Life archives will tell is still unclear. “I think that if you spend a lot of time dealing with old things, you look at the world the way it will look in a hundred years rather than the way it looks today,” said Lidji. “We know how we feel now but we don’t know how they are going to feel in the future, and we don’t know what historical events are going to happen between now and a hundred years from now that are going to change the public understanding of this event.”

Even in the past year, the large-scale meaning of the attack in Pittsburgh has changed. “The day before Poway happened, Pittsburgh had a certain meaning attached to it, and then the next day that meaning changed,” said Lidji. The shooting at the Poway Chabad center near San Diego in April claimed the life of 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye on the last day of Passover.

But Lidji’s focus, and the work of the archive, is grounding future understanding of this attack in the local context of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

“If we’re not careful here in Pittsburgh, we will lose what is at its heart, a local tragedy to its national and international symbolism,” said Lidji. “At the end of the day, for all of the concentric circles of victims, you can never lose sight of the fact that it’s actually 11 people who were killed.”

For Lidji, 36, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, it’s more than a job. “I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life,” he said.

A Space For Healing

Within hours of the shooting last year, the JCC in Squirrel Hill became the makeshift crisis response center where survivors and families of the victims waited for news and the FBI and Jewish community leaders based their operations.

“You had this simultaneous piece between being there directly for families and the community in one part of the facility and the beginning of the community response in another part,” said Brian Schreiber, the JCC’s president and CEO. “From the earliest moments through the course of the year, if you actually think about what’s been consistent, that is still what plays out.”

Just a few weeks before the anniversary, a new Center for Resiliency is opening at the JCC. It will serve as a space for counseling and other healing services for community members as well as the JCC’s staff. The center was created with the guidance of a committee of families of victims, survivors and community members, many of whom met with survivors of other shootings and visited resiliency centers in places like Aurora, Colo., and Parkland, Fla., over the past several months.

At the federation, another committee has met throughout the year to plan the community’s commemorative events on Oct. 27. At both organizations, leaders say, the focus is on those most immediately impacted by the attack.

“You have to start at that core of direct victims and people who were on site that day and work your way out,” said Schreiber.

“In everything we do, we focus on that core group of victims,” said the federation’s Finkelstein. “When I talk, I hold them in my thoughts, and everything I say needs to be appropriate for them to hear.”

“For the families, it’s still October 28th,” said Cohen, the president of New Light.

Don’t Call It ‘Pittsburgh’

Across the country, it’s “Pittsburgh” or “Tree of Life.” Here in Pittsburgh, it’s the 27th, or 10/27. I rarely heard the word “shooting” or “attack.” But for Pittsburghers, this is still the place in which they live and work and go to synagogue.

“It’s very easy to view this event as the defining event in Pittsburgh Jewish history,” said Lidji. “But in terms of the community itself, it’s actually an anomaly, it’s not a defining event at all.”

“When people refer to what happened, I really am offended when they say, ‘We need to remember ‘Pittsburgh.’ It’s not Pittsburgh. This is an incredible city with a Jewish community with a rich history; this is the city that built America. They shouldn’t refer to it as ‘Pittsburgh,’” said Finkelstein. “I’m OK if people want to refer to it as the shooting that took place at the Tree of Life building; I’m OK if they want to talk about the attack that happened in Pittsburgh. But I would actually ask people across the country to think about their use of language.” 

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