On Oct. 27, 2018, unimaginable horror descended on the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as an anti-Semite extinguished the lives of 11 innocent Jews and forever changed the lives of countless others.
It was just before 10 a.m. that Shabbat morning when the killer, armed with an assault rifle, stormed the synagogue at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues where worshippers had just begun morning prayers at three separate congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. He had posted anti-Semitic rants on social media just prior to driving from his home to the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and reportedly yelled, “All Jews must die,” before murdering Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Mel Wax and Irving Younger.
As he fired his weapon, also seriously injuring congregants Andrea Wedner and Daniel Leger, the Pittsburgh Police received calls reporting an active shooter, and within one minute had dispatched officers to the scene.
Sirens rang through the streets of Squirrel Hill as worshippers at other local congregations began to receive the news that the Tree of Life building was under attack. The phones of Jewish Pittsburghers throughout the city buzzed urgently with texts and calls from friends and family all over the world, seeking to make sure their loved ones were safe.
By 11:08 a.m., the killer had surrendered to police, leaving four first responders — officers Timothy Matson, Daniel Mead, Anthony Burke and Michael Smidga — wounded.
It was the worst anti-Semitic attack ever to be committed on U.S. soil, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
It was also “a very horrific crime scene,” Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said at the time. “It’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill, the Tree of Life building. Like Sandy Hook and Parkland and Aurora, the names swiftly — and perhaps permanently — became inextricably linked to gun violence. For more than a week, the mass shooting there was the lead story for most major news outlets. Scores of reporters and photographers and videographers descended on Squirrel Hill, and locals quickly became accustomed to seeing their friends and neighbors interviewed by celebrity journalists on national television, or being quoted in The Washington Post or The New York Times.
Almost immediately following the shooting, the Pittsburgh Jewish community stood as one people. Children from Orthodox day schools prayed in front of the Tree of Life building, a sacred site that had housed Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations. Members from both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox chevra kadishas worked side by side in tending to the remains of those killed, in accordance with Jewish law.
Local institutions sprang into action right away. Soon after the murderer began his rampage, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh filled with thousands of people who waited in a makeshift “grief center” to hear the fate of their loved ones. The JCC, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, provided space and comfort, fielded phone calls and offered aid to the FBI, Salvation Army and Red Cross. The Jewish Family and Community Services rapidly mobilized to provide counseling to the injured, bereaved families, community members and schools.
Neighbors did whatever they could, from donating blood to delivering food.
That Saturday night, students at Allderdice High School organized a candlelight vigil, attracting hundreds despite the rain. The following evening, thousands came to a vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, where both the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah” were sung to an audience that included representatives of every Pittsburgh faith group as well as local political figures and Israeli dignitaries.
Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, stressed the importance of community. “We need the comfort of each other,” he said. “We need love not hate, and we need that giant hug that this Pittsburgh Jewish community always gives.”
Metaphorical and literal “giant hugs” also were offered by those beyond the local Jewish community for the Federation Victims of Terror Fund. Donations came from all over the world. The Muslim community raised funds for the victims as well, as did a 29-year-old Iranian immigrant, Shay Khatiri, who independently set up a crowdfunding site that amassed more than $1 million.
Visits by celebrities and political figures continued throughout the year, including, just days following the shooting, President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Among those who showed up in Pittsburgh to support survivors and victims of the massacres were those who knew firsthand the acute pain, anger and despair that follows a mass shooting — including Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, senior pastor at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emanuel was also targeted by a white supremacist, who in 2015 stormed the church during bible study and killed nine parishioners.
Manning’s presence gave Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers strength at a time when it was desperately needed, said the spiritual leader of Tree of Life at the funeral for Rose Mallinger, 97, which Manning attended.
“An angel visited me this morning,” Myers said at the funeral. “My tank, I don’t think it’s even running on fumes — the fumes have already dissipated. An angel came to me this morning to give me courage and strength.”
Just one month prior to the Mother Emanuel visit, students, teachers and parents from Parkland, Florida, the site of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, came to Pittsburgh to offer help with healing. Ivy Schamis, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, returned to Pittsburgh to be part of a panel discussion on forgiveness at the JCC on Yom Kippur. At the JCC’s annual meeting in September, its inaugural Loving Kindness Award was presented to Daniel Tabares of Parkland, a junior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in recognition of his inspiring work.
In August, families of victims and survivors of the Oct. 27 massacre joined with those from nine other cities that were terrorized by gun violence at a three-day Healing Through Love Meditation Retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, to learn coping techniques to manage the continuing suffering they experience, as well as to connect with others who are going through similar trauma.
“To meet with other families who had been through this made a huge difference,” said Marnie Fienberg, daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, at the time.
While relationships forged with survivors of past mass shootings helped with the healing, reports of new attacks throughout the year continued to re-open wounds.
On the last day of Passover, six months to the day of the massacre at the Tree of Life building, an anti-Semite stormed into the Chabad of Poway near San Diego, killing congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injuring three others, including the shul’s rabbi.
During an April 29 vigil for Poway at the JCC here, the Federation’s Finkelstein thanked the crowd for coming out after “a raging anti-Semite shot up a holy place of worship on Shabbat and murdered our extended Jewish family.”
“These are the exact words, the exact words, I spoke at Soldiers and Sailors Hall on October 28,” he said, with irritation in his voice. “Unfortunately, they still resonate today. I’m sick and tired and frustrated and angry that I have to use them again.”
Not surprisingly, Jewish Pittsburgh is different now than it was prior to Oct. 27, 2018. After the worst of humanity reared its head, the community then saw the best, which has delivered not only inspiration and comfort, but hope.
Tree of Life is on the road to rebuilding, having just announced plans for a renovation that will memorialize those killed during the massacre, and serving as a beacon of light in a world that continues to be thrust into darkness.
Jewish Pittsburgh has learned in the worst possible way that anti-Semitism is most definitely still alive in the 21st century, and that the violence it inspires can hit anywhere, even in the heart of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
But Pittsburgh’s Jews also now know, without a doubt, that they are Stronger than Hate.
Toby Tabachnick is the senior staff writer at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication.