PITTSBURGH – In a demonstration of love, solidarity and compassion, throngs of people from near and far gathered Oct. 28 to mourn the loss of 11 Jews who were killed by a gunman during Shabbat services Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life Congregation.
Among them were Jewish Clevelanders offering support and seeking solace from the event, which they said felt quite close to home. Many from Northeast Ohio have close connections to Pittsburgh. Others felt the loss as neighbors and fellow Jews.
The vigil was held at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, which holds 2,500. The standing-room-only crowd filled the doorways, lined walls, and spilled out into the lobby and onto the front steps of the building, which is about 2 miles from Tree of Life.
The rabbis whose congregations meet in the building spoke of the hope they have for their congregations, even while mourning the brutal losses.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who leads New Light Congregation, spoke of his chaimish congregation and of his decision to move to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which he considered to be a safe and welcoming community.
Rabbi Jeff Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation spoke of wrestling with the psalms.
NORTHEAST OHIO CONNECTION
Clevelanders attending the vigil included rabbis Stephen Weiss, Hal Rudin-Luria and Josh Foster from B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike. Rudin-Luria called Cleveland and Pittsburgh neighbors.
“I was extremely moved by the community outpouring of love and unity,” he said. “And in the face of incredible tragedy that they didn’t lean on us that they lifted each other up.”
His wife, Erika Rudin-Luria, who on Jan. 1 will become the next president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, said she spent part of her day at the vigil and the other part going over security details for a vigil Oct. 29 in Cleveland.
“We are very lucky where we live,” she said. “We have incredible partners in the municipalities and the police departments.”
She also said the way Pittsburgh has pulled together is “inspiring.”
“I thought they sent a very strong message,” she said. “I thought the clergy was exceptionally moving.”
Weiss confirmed that there is a member of B’nai Jeshurun whose relative died in the shootings. He declined to name the member, citing a privacy request from the family.
“We have lots of members who have family in Pittsburgh,” he said, adding there are multiple connections, including United Synagogue Youth.”
Kari Semel is a social work graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I’m doing all right,” she said. “I’ve been with a lot of people who were born and raised in Squirrel Hill. I feel kind of like an outsider.”
Semel’s parents, Jessica and Alan Semel, members of Cleveland’s Jewish community, also attended the vigil in part to support her. Alan Semel is immediate past president of the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood.
“I’ve got a lot of friends here in Pittsburgh – very, very dear friends that are like family,” said Pepper Pike resident Gil Rubanenko, vice president of operations at the Mandel JCC. “When terrible things happen to Jewish people, we come out to support one another.”
Lindsay Migdal, who is from Akron, is the regional director of BBYO in Pittsburgh and attended the event with a BBYO group. She met with the teens prior to the event to make sure all 117 teens she sees were safe, she said.
“A lot of them live near the synagogue,” she said. “We’re looking to do a teen-led Havdalah next week.”
She said the teens were also looking for ways to be useful and had already made cookies for the first responders at Pittsburgh police station Zone 4, about four blocks from Tree of Life.
Drew Barkley, who grew up in Shaker Heights and is the executive director of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, said religious school seemed to go well
“We hired two armed security guards, and fortunately, they had nothing to do,” he said.
He said the atmosphere was peaceful at the religious school.
“My dad was born and raised in Pittsburgh,” said Jeremy Pappas, regional director of Anti-Defamation League in Cleveland. “Not only did I have the professional reason (to attend), but this hit close to home as well.
“It’s hard to fathom the largest attack on the Jewish people in the history of our country.”
‘THEY WERE PILLARS’
Perlman described the three men lost from his congregation as pillars.
“They remind me of the character that is described in this week’s Torah portion,” he said, referring to Rebekah’s kindness to Eliezar. “Rebekah was the first volunteer in history.”
He said the three congregants worked with “the poor, the hungry and the needy.” His voice broke with emotion.
“These three men, they cannot be replaced. But we will not be broken. We will not be broken by this event.”
Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash Congregation spoke of the warmth of her congregation and promised it would continue to thrive, to worship and to sing, even in light of the tragedy. She spoke of the kindness of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz.
“Usually, at times like this, I turn to Psalms,” said Myers, whose Tree of Life Congregation lost seven members.
He said he started services at 9:45 a.m. on Oct. 27. There were 12 people in the sanctuary. The shooting started a few minutes later. Seven were shot dead. One was wounded.
“I thought of the 23rd Psalm,” he said. “‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ Well God, I want. What I want, you can’t give me. You can’t return these 11 beautiful souls. You can’t rewind the clock. So, how do I rectify my dilemma with this psalm? What I want you can’t give me, but it says I shall not want. If you turn later in the psalm, you read you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
“My texts, my emails, my Facebook overflow with love, from strangers, people I’ve never met, people who are not from the United States but from all around the world – Jewish, Christian, Muslim. All the same message: We are here for you. My cup overflows with love. That’s how you defeat hate.
“You, in this community, have shown that to me,” he said. “I’m an immigrant. I’m from New York.”
‘WORDS OF HATE UNWELCOME’
“It starts with speech,” Myers continued. “Words of hate are unwelcome in Pittsburgh.
“I want to address some of our leaders who are here,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, it has to start with you.”
He went further, saying he was talking to everyone in the room.
“My mother once told me, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.”
He closed his remarks by chanting El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for all the dead, inviting the audience to stand.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of Diaspora Affairs, flew in from Israel to be at the vigil. He also visited the Tree of Life Congregation.
“I did not see death. I saw life. I did not see darkness. I saw light,” he said. “I saw a warm, diverse community of love and unity. I saw Etz Chaim, the tree of life, which will never be uprooted by hate. Together we stand, Americans, Israelis, people who are together saying no to hatred.
“A murder’s bullet does not stop to ask, are you Conservative? Reform? Are you Orthodox? Are you right-wing? Left-wing?
“Yes, I come from Israel, on behalf of the state of Israel, on behalf of the government of Israel and on behalf of the people of Israel. I come to offer comfort, but what words of comfort can I give?”
He read the names of each of the deceased: Joyce Fienberg, Rich Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.
“Eleven souls, 11 innocent lives brutally cut short, he said.”
“During the 80 years since Kristallnacht, when the Jews of Europe perished in the flames of their houses of worship, one thing is clear: anti-Semitism, Jew hatred, is not a distant memory,” Bennett continued. “It is not a thing of the past, nor a chapter in history books. It is a very real threat. Anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger.”
He vowed to fight anti-Semitism, “and we will prevail.”
“Unity will defeat division. Love will defeat hatred. Light will defeat darkness,” he said.
He ended with the prayer for peace in Hebrew and the words, “Am Yisrael Chai.”
“I feel your pain today,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a videotaped address. “At this time, we cannot offer you consolation. ... We are with you. This was an act of anti-Semitism. We must not and will not ignore or tolerate anti-Semitism.”
Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Muslim Center of Pittsburgh, spoke of the many contributions of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. He said he immediately took up a collection for funerals upon learning of the shootings and had raised $70,000 overnight.
“We just want to know what you need,” he said, promising to do whatever asked, whether it’s preparing food, going grocery shopping or raising money.
The Rev. John Welch, who is a police chaplain, addressed the group as well. He mentioned the name of another member of the clergy who also serves as a chaplain: Rabbi Alvin Berkun, Tree of Life’s Rabbi Emeritus.
“I also stand here as a member of the African-American community, a community that has a common global history with our Jewish brothers and sisters, whether it be slavery or the Holocaust” Welch said.
“Our common experience in this country and in this city, both of us (have been) subjects of the same marginalization, yet together we are advocates of civil rights and social justice. And while the pain of our histories are similar, and while tragedy does seem to bring us together, it will only be the mutual love and respect we have one for another that will sustain our relationship.”
Welch remarks drew applause. He also paid tribute to the officers who ran toward gunfire.
“Yesterday, four of our officers were wounded while displaying the incomparable courage that only our first responders and our armed service members can display,” he said. “Unfortunately, we also lost 11 friends and family members at Tree of Life Synagogue. But because of the bravery of the officers, it is believed that other lives were saved.”
He called Pittsburgh a city of steel and of champions.
“Champions know how to work together to achieve one goal,” he said. “Our goal is to work together to make this city a model city ... where everyone feels welcome.”
Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, hosted the vigil, named “Stronger Than Hate.”
Other speakers included the Rev. Liddy Farlow; Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto; Richard Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive; Rabbi Danny Schiff of the United Jewish Fund; and Rabbi Ron Symons of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Center.
The program opened with gospel renditions by the Rodman Street Baptist Church. The choir also backed a soloist in “L’Chi Lach” by Debbie Friedman. Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra closed the program with two songs written during the Holocaust.
Earlier Oct. 28, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh was closed, with yellow tape in front of the building and flags flying at half-staff. A patrolman stood guard.
The area around the Tree of Life Congregation was cordoned off over several blocks.
People from all walks of life made their way to the edges of the blockade to lay flowers in makeshift shrines.
Families with small children made their way to Zone 4, the closest police station to the synagogue, to deliver food and cards.
International media staked out the corner where the synagogue was visible holding interviews under tents on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues.