PITTSBURGH – Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community affected by the Oct. 27, 2018, synagogue massacre and other community leaders convened at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on Sept. 20 before dozens of reporters and photographers to discuss reflections on the past year and plans going forward, including for next month’s commemoration events.
Representatives included those from Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation, Tree of Life Congregation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family and Community Services, the 10.27 Healing Partnership and the Center for Victims.
Andrea Wedner, who was seriously injured in the attack and whose mother, Rose Mallinger was killed, and Michele Rosenthal, whose brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal were murdered, also addressed the media. Mallinger had relatives in Akron, Ohio.
The comprehensive, nearly three-hour press conference featured panels of stakeholders discussing various aspects of the massacre and its consequences.
“Sept. 29 marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays,” said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services. “For some, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the first time they attend synagogue services since the shooting, and many are feeling increased anxiety, while for others, attending High Holiday services without their loved ones may be overwhelming. JFCS therapists will be present at several congregations and available to step in as needed.”
Golin explained JFCS has been involved with providing counseling and therapy for those affected by the massacre since the morning of Oct. 27. JFCS will be placing clinicians on site during High Holy Days services for Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light, and is able to provide clinicians to other congregations upon request.
The Center for Victims also has been providing victim support since the day of the shooting, said Cindy Snyder, the Center for Victims’ clinical director.
“It is important to note the shooting did not target Dor Hadash, New Light or Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregations,” Snyder said. “All people of the Jewish faith were targeted. As such, the impacts of the action were and are both specific and far reaching.
“People were gathered in a space of safety, a building where each of the three congregations practiced their faith. The events of that day shattered for many, fundamental concepts of safety and security. These are significant and long reaching effects.”
It is essential, she explained, the community remains focused, with “a trauma-informed lens,” to the needs of all those who remain traumatized by the massacre. The Center for Victims, she added, will continue to offer support through the High Holy Days and at all public and private commemoration events.
Even those who have made strides in their healing journeys are susceptible to being retraumatized, and events such as the date itself, or holidays, can be triggering, according to Golin.
“Trauma can be reignited around lots of things that remind the person about the experience that they went through,” Golin explained.
Over the next couple months, he said, “we are paying special attention to providing whatever kind of support we can for something we expect will be difficult for a lot of people.”
Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish life and learning at the federation, discussed details regarding the “Remember. Repair. Together” programming which will mark one year since the massacre.
“The reason to have official events at all is that this is a difficult day and we wanted to provide something for people to do that would be sensitive to the wishes of those most closely impacted, as activities of honor,” she explained, adding the planned volunteer opportunities as well as Torah study are Jewishly appropriate ways to honor those who were killed.
A panel of leaders from the three congregations that were housed in the Tree of Life building discussed how their members have been coping and responding in the aftermath of the attack.
“This healing requires us to be an example to the Jewish community, an example to Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh, and to all who have suffered gun violence,” said Donna Coufal, president of Dor Hadash, noting her congregation’s commitment to social justice in response to the attack.
Dor Hadash, she said, “stands against gun violence and supports immigration. Out of our congregation sprung the community-wide organization Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence. We spoke out against the death penalty. We refuse to stay victims.”
Ellen Surloff, immediate past president of Dor Hadash, brought to the fore the sharp reality that mass gun violence continues to pose a threat to Jews and others.
“Eleven months ago a white supremacist, a virulent anti-Semite who wanted to rid the world of all Jews walked into the Tree of Life building where three congregations worshipped with an assault rifle in hand and he murdered 11 of our fellow congregants, including our beloved Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a longtime and vital part of the Dor Hadash community,” Surloff said. “And the sad reality, and it’s something that each and every one of us in this room today knows, is that 11 months later, another mass murder carried out with yet another assault rifle, another deadly act carried out at the hands of a white supremacist could, God forbid, take place at any moment and at any place in this country.”
Barbara Caplan, co-president of New Light Congregation noted the particular difficulties faced by New Light, having “had three different homes in three years.”
“Two years ago, we celebrated our last High Holiday service in our home of 75 years,” she said. In November 2017, the congregation moved to the Tree of Life building, and was planning to hold its first anniversary party there the first week of November 2018.
“Instead, we were homeless, having been driven out of the Tree of Life building by the most horrific anti-Semitic act in U.S. history.”
Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light, said his congregation, which is currently housed at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, is “committed to moving back to the Tree of Life building,” but added he expects that process “to take many years.”
He called for a broad discussion, involving state and city officials, on “what to do with the Tree of Life building and how to memorialize the event for future generations.”
He suggested a public-private partnership “with broad public input to discuss the question of what exactly a memorial should be to record this horrific event,” including input from the victims and other interested groups “to create a foundation to begin the long process of crafting an appropriate memorial remembering the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.”
Sam Schachner, president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, emphasized the lessons of community that became evident following the attack.
“What we’ve learned in this process is that there really is a community, that the whole community, not only Squirrel Hill, but all of Pittsburgh has been impacted by this event,” he said. “So our focus going forward is really looking at how we can be inclusive and collaborative with that whole community.
“It has been a remarkable experience over the past 10 months that the whole city, the whole community, people of all different faiths have really reached out to us and been tremendously supportive.”
Faith leaders representing the three congregations discussed the challenges of taking care of their congregations while caring for themselves.
Rabbi Doris Dyen, a member of Dor Hadash and a Reconstructionist spiritual leader, was outside the Tree of Life building, preparing to enter to co-lead services with Dan Leger, who was shot and seriously injured when the attack began.
“Since the shooting, it has been a long, slow journey of physical, emotional and spiritual recovery in which I have found myself taking care of others including many in the Dor Hadash congregation,” she said.
While she has been “essentially trying to make sense of an unfathomable event,” she has found “inspiration and resilience in the community and that is very much a part of the Reconstructionist approach to life.”
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light described in detail the trauma he has undergone since the day of the event.
“I have discovered that trauma has many faces and has many highs and lows and that it is something that will remain with me the rest of my life,” he said. “It is a wound. It’s not like grief that you can recover from and make peace with. Trauma is something that is ready to attack you at any moment of the day. Hearing gunshots, TV, hearing a loud boom in the street, it might be from a car backfiring or something like that. Being aware of crowds and suspicious people, and it has deeply affected me.”
Trauma is worse the second year after the event, he said he has been told.
“So, I am preparing for that,” Perlman said.
As the rabbi of Tree of Life, as well as a survivor, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers has been tasked with finding strength for himself as well as for others.
“I live with Oct. 27 every minute of every hour of every day and I will for the rest of my life,” he said. “Each of us finds the strength and the courage to integrate what happened into our beings, to move forward. I refuse to let the perpetrator make me another full-time victim. I won’t let it happen. I refuse.
“My faith is strong,” he added. “I look to God every day for the guidance to say the right things and do the right things.”
Wedner, despite her injuries and the murder of her mother, said she has a “positive outlook.”
“I am going to live my life,” she said. “It was almost taken away and I’m not going to let that happen, so I am going to enjoy.”
Although Rosenthal has become a member of a group she never wanted to be a part of, she has found strength in the other families affected by the massacre.
“These families have just been such a huge support system,” she said. “I try to focus on the new relationships and the bonds and the people who have gotten us through this.”
She also finds strength in the stories she continues to hear from others about her brothers.
“The lives that they touched,” she said. “I was so protective of them, but they had a whole world to themselves. That gets me through.”