‘People Are Remembering’: Communities Continue Reaching out to Pittsburgh Months Later

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Dave Kalla, Susan Ribnick and Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe, of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin
Dave Kalla traveled to Austin, Texas, to represent the three congregations targeted on Oct. 27. Kalla is joined by Susan Ribnick and Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe, of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin. (Photo courtesy of Dave Kalla)

By Adam Reinherz

Each week a new gift arrives. Sometimes it’s artwork, other times a book. A baker once brought sweet potato pies from Minnesota; a professional violinist played for congregants. Representatives of a Japanese-American cohort delivered 1,000 handmade origami paper cranes.

Since Oct. 27, the volume of items received is overwhelming, explained Janet Cohen, of New Light Congregation.

“It seems like every Friday night the rabbi brings a package that may have come from a church, school or group,” echoed Dave Kalla, of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.

Seven months since a gunman entered the Tree of Life building and killed 11 Jews, people continue reaching out to Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life, the three targeted congregations. Along with deliveries of tangible materials are requests to join upcoming ceremonies, concerts or dedications memorializing the victims.

The sheer number of invitations makes it impossible to honor them all, “and we felt bad not being able to reciprocate or respond to outsiders with these very generous thoughtful loving impulses toward us … so we created this ambassador bureau,” said Laurie Eisenberg, of Tree of Life.

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Since January, Eisenberg has served as a matchmaker of sorts. When a request comes in, whether it is an offer to attend an event for symbolic purposes, speak on behalf of those affected or receive visitors wishing to pay respects, Eisenberg reaches out to congregants from Tree of Life and representatives from Dor Hadash and New Light.

Dave Kalla was headed to Galveston, Texas, to visit his father and sister when a request came in from 18 mosaicists who had created a project inspired by last October’s event. Their work, “From Darkness to Light: The Tree of Life Synagogue Memorial Mosaic Project,” was hanging at Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, roughly 200 miles away from Galveston. Eisenberg asked Kalla whether he would be interested in attending.

Going to Austin was “definitely not out of my way,” said Kalla, who traveled to Congregation Agudas Achim, met with the rabbi and several of the artists. The mosaicists explained their efforts and Kalla shared with them the intricacies of communal life in Squirrel Hill. The conversation gave new meaning to their pieces, he said.

“I actually got to meet the people that were behind the artistry, as opposed to just receiving something with a note,” said Kalla. “They were so gracious and happy to have someone from Tree of Life.”

Months ago, when they conceived of linking congregants and opportunities, “we had not thought how moving the experience would be for the ambassadors,” said Eisenberg.

“Everyone gets something a little different from it. I have heard they find it very moving and they are honored to be recognized,” said Cohen, who matches congregants from New Light with various requests.

The ripple effects go beyond bringing back positive messages, or even easing an individual’s burden, explained Eisenberg.

“It’s really creating relations and building bridges in a way that we hadn’t quite anticipated when we originally set out to find a polite way to honor so many of these requests and invitations,” she said. “The groups that we are meeting with and interacting with are going to go back to their church, synagogue or youth group and say, ‘I’ve been to the Tree of Life synagogue building, I’ve seen what the memorial looks like, I’ve heard from actual members who knew the victims,’ and they just spread goodwill and say positive things about us, about Jews.” Those they connect with “become ambassadors of goodwill themselves,” she added.

Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life handle requests differently. Only the latter has created a formal “ambassador program.” A commonality, however, is that the three congregations are united in empowering their congregants. An unexpected outcome has been the strengthening of current congregants’ ties to institutions.

Because of October’s events, “we aren’t in our own building, we don’t have our own space, so for people who aren’t looking to come to services Friday night or Saturday morning, this is a way to be connected and represent the synagogue,” said Eisenberg.

Dor Hadash and Tree of Life presently meet at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside. New Light meets at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.

As time passes, people are seeking methods for healing. Some of the opportunities can offer benefit, explained Cohen.

“I met such wonderful people outside your typical Squirrel Hill crowd,” said Kalla.

“To meet these people [who] are still keeping us in their thoughts and still care about us all these months later, it’s an absolutely win-win situation,” echoed Eisenberg.

There has been no shortage of requests. In the coming weeks one congregant is scheduled to speak to a group of eighth-grade graduates in Great Neck, New York. Other congregants are slated to welcome visiting students from Iowa and collaborate on a community service project.

“It’s just amazing, there seems to be a never-ending variety of ways to do lovely beautiful things together,” said Eisenberg. “We are all having these really special experiences and any time you can find a silver lining in something horrific it’s nice to share it with other people so they can appreciate it too.”

“We’re overwhelmed with the support we’ve been given by these external groups. ..and grateful that people are remembering and continue to honor our victims,” said Cohen.

Adam Reinherz is a writer for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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