One Year Later, Pittsburgh, Nation Come Together to Honor, Remember Tree of Life Victims

By October 28, 2019 No Comments

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha addresses the crowd at Sunday night’s one-year commemoration of the 2018 Tree of Life attack. (Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Amanda Reed
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer

Howard Reinfeld, 71, and Susan Reinfeld, 69, were out of town for last year’s vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. This year, they made it a point to attend.   

“Sometimes all you need to do is show up,” Howard Reinfeld said. 

Whether by sitting in the hall itself, standing outside or watching online via Livestream, thousands showed up tp Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall Sunday in Oakland to commemorate the lives of the 11 victims of the Tree of Life attack, one year later. Hundreds attended the hour-long commemorative community gathering, called “Remember. Repair. Together.” honored the first responders, the survivors, the victims and their families. 

After a processional by University of Pittsburgh athletes, who placed yellow bouquets at the front of the auditorium, Rabbi Amy Bardack of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh led opening remarks, naming the individuals and organizations who consulted on designing the event to honor the wishes of those closely impacted.  

“In sorrow, we remember. With hope, we repair. With solidarity, we come together,” she said. 

After a reading of Psalm 23, family members of the 11 victims — Joyce Fienberg, 75, of Oakland; Richard Gottfried, 65, of Ross; Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill; Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg and Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg, who are married; Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill; Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill; and Irving Younger, 69, of Mt. Washington — lit 11 candles onstage while Radiant Strings, the CAPA Alumni Ensemble, played. 

A video honoring the victims was then screened, featuring family members discussing their loved ones, with photographs and interviews. The video featured different levels of representation out of respect for the victims.

After more readings and prayers — including the El Maleh Rahamim, a prayer for the souls of the deceased; the Mi Sheberach, a prayer for healing; and the Birak HaGomel, a prayer for having survived danger — leaders of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life synagogue — Dor Hadash, New Life and Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha — spoke, making the only remarks of the night. 

Rabbi Anne-Marie Mizel Nelson, representing Dor Hadash, thanked the community for its support, stated Dor Hadash’s commitment to combining Jewish tradition with progressive values in the Pittsburgh community and paid tribute to Jerry Rabinowitz, who was a member of the congregation. 

“Out of many voices, we rise as one,” she said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha, drew a few laughs from the crowd with pop culture references in his remarks. 

“Although this might seem totally impious, I have learned from Mick Jagger that I can’t always get what I want, but if I try, sometimes I find I get what I need,” he said. “Who’d think you get Torah from Mick Jagger?”

Myers emphasized togetherness, spreading hope, and doing good for others as a means for healing and justice.

“If America is ever going to succeed, it will do so with everyone. And I mean, everyone is on this experiment called democracy together, when our common needs are recognized as applicable to all, not just some,” he said.

Myers also addressed members of the media, asking them to focus on the “wonderful people doing some incredible things, toiling in anonymity.”

“Instead of the eleven o’clock news featuring murder, robbery, and mayhem for 24 minutes, why not feature good people improving the lives of others?” he said. “Save the horrific news for the last few minutes.”

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of New Light, stressed coming together and setting aside differences. 

“I am hopeful living in this city of Champions that will continue to make this one of the greatest cities on earth where goodness prevails, where strangers help one another, when people protect other people, when we look out for the vulnerable and take care of the poor, where we befriend one another, not despite our religious or ethnic differences, but because of our religious and ethnic differences,” 

Like Rabbi Myers, Rabbi Perlman also addressed the media.

“I think that we need to go gently during the second year and understand what trauma means and not to retraumatize the victims and survivors of this event and to know when a hot story, maybe it needs to be told next week and to just leave us alone so that we can mourn,” he said. 

Mayor Bill Peduto, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Governor Tom Wolf read passages, and the event concluded with closing remarks from Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh; Jordan Golin president and CEO of the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh and Brian Schreiber, CEO of the Jewish Community Center. 

Community members visited the Tree of Life synagogue on Wilkins and Shady Aves., paying their respects throughout the day. Bouquets of flowers rested on the fence surrounding the building, and many perused a display of artwork from local students and from Parkland, Florida, Newtown, Connecticut and Littleton, Colorado.

Molly Levine, 46, and her 12-year-old daughter, Mia, hung handmade Stars of David on the memorial site as part of Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, a project that began last year. Volunteers hung 2,000 of them as a reaction to the tragedy, and saved some to hang to commemorate the tragedy one year later.

Although many volunteer efforts were planned for the weekend, Levine says helping your community is a daily effort.  

“I think it’s important to at least note it and be doing things every other day besides today, too,” she said. 

Julia Averbach, a 26-year-old Squirrel Hill resident, moving forward means remembering what’s at the heart of the neighborhood. 

“Our sacred bubble was put on the map and now we’re remembered for this, but really, what we should be remembered for is that we’re a community that comes together regardless of our differences,” she said. 

Stephen Cohen, co-president of the New Light Congregation, said that, “time flies.” 

“That’s the hardest part of the whole thing because it’s amazing that it’s a year later, that we are standing here.”

Tree of Life leaders announced on Oct. 18 plans to reopen the synagogue with places for worship; memorial, education and social events; classrooms and exhibitions. The building has not re-opened since last year’s attack.  

Cohen said that, whatever happens with the building, the outcome will be “intentional.”

“I think it involves a broader community discussion about not only what should go one here, but how what happened should be remembered for the future,” Cohen said. “They’re just questions at this point, there are no answers.”

Rabbi Josef Silverman, 59, of Squirrel Hill, who represents Chabad Lubavitch of Pittsburgh, said that support for the Jewish community is palpable, mirroring the remarks of many affected by the tragedy. 

“In a strange way,” he said, “from a tremendous darkness, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of light.”

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