By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Rows of candles said what words couldn’t.
It had been six days since 11 were slain and Pittsburgh turned upside-down by the synagogue shooting during Shabbat services on Oct. 27, 2018, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David Wecht – the state’s highest-ranking Jewish jurist – was driving to Adat Shalom in Cheswick for the first Shabbat service since the massacre.
As he approached, the judge – who was raised in Squirrel Hill, served on the Tree of Life board, and got married at the Wilkins Avenue shul in 1998 – saw crowds of Christian parishioners welcoming the Jewish community, lining the road as they held candles in vigil. It was a simple enough gesture of solidarity but, to Wecht, it spoke volumes.
“I am still moved to tears when I think about that,” says Wecht, who moved from Squirrel Hill to Indiana Township about 15 years ago. “When I pulled in and saw all of those people, that was one of the most moving things in my life.”
Wecht, the son of prominent medical examiner Cyril Wecht, had trouble processing the weight of the attack in its immediate aftermath.
“It was highly shocking and highly disorienting to me, thinking of what happened,” he says. “It’s profound. It’s almost incomprehensible.”
But that immediate response melded in later months into feelings closer to the Yiddish word “heimish,” which he describes, aptly, as “a cozy, warm feeling of neighborliness and kindness,” a feeling that was integral to his Squirrel Hill upbringing. He felt like part of a larger community and took comfort in how his Jewish heritage and Jewish values played important roles in his life.
Wecht does not consider himself very religious, though he went to Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah – a rite of passage for Jews as they enter their teenage years – at the Young People’s Congregation on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. (The building now educates young Jewish girls as the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh.)
Wecht was elected to a 10-year term on the nation’s oldest Supreme Court in 2015. He has studied the implications of hate crimes and bigotry, as well as the Holocaust, and gave at least two bold, prominent speeches in the past year on the subjects. The first one, “Antisemitism, America and The Law,” took place at Yale University in April, the second, “When The Rule of Law Fails: Lessons of The Holocaust,” before the Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor’s Forum in June.
When speaking at these events, either to students or lawyers, Wecht often grounds concepts of bigotry and hatred faced by the Jewish people by speaking directly to his audience and in the second person: you can experience these things, you are human like we are.
“In this historic building, I recall hearing many fine lectures by brilliant scholars,” Wecht said at Yale this spring, according to transcripts of the event. “I’m sure many of you are experiencing that same thrill of learning here at Yale, that same enlightenment. Enjoy every minute of it. The world can wait.”
“But, tonight, I’m here to talk with about that world, nonetheless,” he continued, “about a troubling aspect of that world, a challenging aspect … it’s the story of Judeo-phobia, of Jew-hatred, of antisemitism.”
Wecht said the concept of antisemitism has taken a more concrete form for him in the past year.
“I reflect upon [the shooting] and I’m reminded of it when I read about other things that occur in the world. I’m very aware of the measures Jews are taking now that weren’t taken before,” Wecht says.
But Sunday is not a day for abstraction.
Like he did a year ago, Wecht today will trek to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall for a gathering about the shooting, last year’s vigil replaced by this year’s first-year commemoration.
“I want to be there,” Wecht says. “I want to be there with others, remembering this horrible event. I feel like there are times when people feel it’s a good thing to be part of a larger community. I feel like this is one of them.”
“This event will be an emotional and spiritual experience for many people.”