By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
This Sunday morning will begin where we left off a year ago, with a Torah reading.
Three Squirrel Hill congregations attacked by an antisemitic gunman fueled by hatred on Oct. 27, 2018 – Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light – will gather for a private service. There, far away from the TV cameras and prying eyes of the media, they will study Parsha Vayeira, the Torah section they were reading when violently interrupted by the shooting last year. The Parsha, from the Book of Genesis, is the Torah’s second-longest at 147 verses.
“The Parsha describes two very parallel messages,” says Rabbi Yisroel Altein, who has served as spiritual leader at Chabad of Pittsburgh for 16 years. “We have the story of Sodom, which the Torah describes as an evil city, but we also have the promise of the future of the Jewish people in Isaac being born in a miraculous way.”
“It has both sides of the story of Oct. 27 – both the evil and the strength in the survival of the Jewish people.”
It is an understatement to say Jewish Pittsburgh has had a difficult year.
Immediately following the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, the city’s community, centered around the tight-knit hub of leafy Squirrel Hill, was tasked with burying 11 victims and nurturing back to health six more. As they mourned both publicly and privately in the months that followed, they also were forced to adapt to a new normal – including but in no way limited to increased security at their houses of worship, service organizations and schools; heightened awareness to bigotry and hate, and a renewed vigilance in reporting those elements to authorities; and public reckonings of their own faith.
“It’s always going to be on everyone’s mind,” says Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor, who was raised dual-faith by a Jewish mother and Christian father. “For us, it’s about moving the neighborhood forward, doing the things we’ve always done.”
Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, the congregation that received a dubious distinction when national media coined the shooting after it, moved to Rodef Shalom on Fifth Avenue and, under the leadership of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, tightened its bonds.
“These victims were people you sat with several pews away and talked to about the mundane points of your life. Now, you’re at seven funerals in five days,” says Michele Woltshock, 43, of Forest Hills, a Tree of Life congregant for six years. “I feel very fortunate we were not there. I feel very fortunate my daughter is alive. I sort of feel this obligation to be there. I have an obligation to God to be thankful.”
Membership at New Light Congregation, based in a temple on Forbes Avenue before moving into the Tree of Life building two years ago, has increased since the shooting. It currently holds services down Shady Avenue, at Beth Shalom.
“We made a deal when we sold the [Forbes Avenue] building that the walls around us were less important than staying together as a family – that gives us a lot of strength,” says Stephen Cohen, New Light’s co-president. “Every day is Oct. 27. I have moved a little bit beyond that but, for a long time, every day was Oct. 27. It’s very hard to move on from a traumatic event but I think one of the ways to move on is to create a home, which is what we’re doing at Beth Shalom.”
Marnie Fienberg lost her mother-in-law, Joyce, in the shooting. In addition to forming 2 For Seder, a nonprofit that encourages interfaith celebrations of the Jewish holiday Passover or Pesach, she has developed friendships with those whose loved ones were killed in other mass shootings, like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“We’re part of this club nobody wants to be a part of,” says Fienberg, 50, a former consultant to the federal government who has lived in northern Virginia for more than 20 years. “There’s been so much love and support, it’s almost overwhelming. There is so much more love in the world than the hate that spurred this horrible event.”
Marnie’s husband, Howard, prayed and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish at temple for his mother every day in the first year following her death. When the couple traveled to Florida to visit other family, Howard researched temples in the area where he could pray. It became a source of routine and of comfort.
Something one rabbi told Marnie, however, in the midst of the mourning really stuck with her.
“He said, ‘It isn’t about how the 11 died. It’s about how they lived,’” she says. “There were amazing people. And I want people to remember that.”
October 27, 2019 will end at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, just as it did last year, with 2018’s vigil replaced by 2019’s first-year commemoration. The 10/27 Healing Partnership and Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh event, which is expected to fill the historic Oakland hall, starts at 5 p.m.
But that is just the culmination of a day – and, in many ways, a year – filled with counseling for survivors and community members, as well as acts of public and volunteer service, says Maggie Feinstein, who was named director of 10/27 Healing Partnership earlier this year. The partnership, known colloquially as the resiliency center, is based at the JCC on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill.
“There’s a communal resource that day, a place where people know they can go,” Feinstein says. “We also have space where people can cry or hug or talk and they can feel sure there’s a safe space to do that.”
Stefanie Small is an Orthodox Jew who attends services at Shaare Torah in Squirrel Hill. She joined Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) 18 years ago and has worked as its clinical director for the past three. She stressed the nonprofit JFCS is founded on Jewish concepts but it is not exclusive to those who follow them religiously.
“Although Jewish is in our name, we don’t discriminate based on religion, color, creed, anything – you come to us, we serve you,” Small says. “Even though it’s a Jewish agency and even though it’s a Jewish mission, the majority of the people we helped are not Jewish.”
Small and others will be working hand-in-hand with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to support the Soldiers & Sailors event and other commemorative activities on Sunday.
Mallory Kasdan will mark the day with a high-school entrance exam for her daughter near their Brooklyn home.
“I was born in Pittsburgh to parents who were born in Pittsburgh, and they were born to grandparents that were born in Pittsburgh,” joked Kasdan, 47, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Tree of Life on Oct. 19, 1985. She last visited the temple before the shooting to eulogize her mother in 2013.
“I will take a moment [today] of course to mourn and to think of how we can be safe and vigilant, and figure out how to root out antisemitism and quell the terrible gun violence we see in our schools, synagogues, malls, public spaces,” she says. “The last year has been hard. A week after the shooting last year, I came to Pittsburgh. I attended Shabbat services at Rodef Sholom … and that, too, was a very moving experience, sitting alongside my dad and his friend, praying for peace with neighbors and friends, some of whom had never stepped foot in a synagogue before.”
Michael Sampson is the father of two Community Day School students. He and his wife made the decision soon after the shooting to be as transparent with them as possible about the tragic event.
“There was no way to hide it,” says Sampson, 45, of Dor Hadash, a lawyer who works Downtown and lives in Squirrel Hill. “We didn’t go into a discussion of the gruesome details but we answered their questions, ‘Where was somebody shot in the building?’ to ‘Where was somebody shot in their body?’ We tried to be forthright and direct.”
“We stressed we were not going to be scared of sharing our Judaism.”
Then, there were the politics, which, inevitably, clouded the landscape.
Dor Hadash congregant Harry Hochheiser co-wrote a letter and petition pressuring President Donald Trump to cancel his visit to our mourning city. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto also asked Trump to hold his visit until the dead were buried; he heeded neither call. Trump visited the city for a speech on Oct. 23, 2019. He didn’t mention the synagogue shooting in his speech, but he was shouted down by several protesters who exclaimed, “Trump endangers Jews,” before being removed from the Convention Center.
“I think it’s very clear the rhetoric and discussion that comes out of this White House – he’s been doing this for years — fed into this,” says Hochheiser, 52, who teaches biomedical informatics at the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Squirrel Hill. “I don’t think he can walk away from that in any way. He set up the environment where people do these things.”
Rabbi Myers has stressed that his congregation will defy antisemitism and rebuild its 66-year-old facility, which was in need of thousands of dollars in deferred repairs even before the attack gutted it. The new Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building will be a testament to the congregations’ strengths.
“We are a resilient community,” says Sam Schachner, president of Tree of Life, in a prepared statement. “When something bad happens, we have three choices. We can either let it define us, let it destroy us, or we can let it strengthen us. We will not let this attack destroy us. And we will not let this attack define us as a congregation.”
Those lessons are sinking in, says congregant Woltshock.
“If this has taught me anything, it’s that there’s enough division,” she said. “We need safe spaces where people can be different but still have some unity. I feel very at home in this congregation because of that reason.”