The drive from Center City, Philadelphia, to the Tree of Life synagogue building in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh is a straightforward one, even if it’s a bit long. From the Jewish Community Services Building at 2100 Arch St., you just hop on I-76 W and leave your foot on the pedal; in five hours, you get off 76, and there you are, at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues. It’s only about a 300-mile drive.
It is partly this proximity that explains why last year’s attack on the building, which left 11 Jews dead at the hands of a man screaming, “All Jews must die,” struck a unique chord in Philadelphia. Besides being in-state, it took place in a walkable, tight-knit Jewish community, not unlike many in the Philadelphia area.
It is not surprising, then, that synagogues and Jewish groups across Philadelphia commemorated the one-year mark of the Oct. 27, 2018 attack on the three congregations. At City Hall, leaders from the American Jewish Committee Philadelphia led a group, including several City Council members, in a short commemorative event, also announcing the reignition of their “#ShowUpForShabbat” initiative; City Councilman Allan Domb read kaddish for his father, and for those killed in the shooting.
Domb was also present at a candlelight vigil hosted by the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation the evening before, at the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza at 17th and the Parkway. The memorial at the plaza was completed just five days before the murders in Pittsburgh.
On Sunday, the actual anniversary, a crowd gathered at the National Museum of American Jewish History for a commemoration event organized by the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
Rabbis Eric Yanoff and Annie Lewis, co-presidents of the BOR, gave a short introduction, in which Yanoff said that gaining understanding with time was akin to stepping back from an impressionist painting, and Lewis initiated a niggun as 11 attendees came to the stage to light yahrzeit candles.
“The rabbis’ goal was to have a ritually grounded commemoration, so that the focus would be on the ritual work of commemoration,” said Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, administrative coordinator of the BOR. It was not an accident, she said, that they had chosen to call the event “Honoring the Tree of Life: A Yahrzeit Commemoration,” even if it was only the secular calendar anniversary, rather than the actual yahrzeit.
That portion of the evening was followed by short addresses from JCRC chair and lawyer Arlene Fickler, who spoke about her organization’s methods of combating anti-Semitism at a communal and political level, as well as ADL Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer.
“Even in America, combating anti-Semitism remains a key part of our agenda,” Fickler said. “This includes traditional anti-Semitism from the right, which motivated the perpetrator of the evil deeds at Tree of Life, but also anti-Semitism from the left, where support for Palestinians is increasingly used as a cover to advocate for anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.”
Following these addresses, Rabbi Daniel Levitt introduced the main speaker of the evening, Dr. Michelle Friedman, chair of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where Levitt is her student.
Friedman’s area of expertise, Steinberg-Egeth noted, fit in perfectly with the theme of the evening as she combines study of psychology and psychoanalysis with Jewish principles. In other words, Steinberg-Egeth said, she helps future rabbis figure out how to have difficult conversations.
“We wanted people who attended to walk away with a sense of direction for their own healing, as well as for the communal healing,” said Steinberg-Egeth.
Friedman’s talk was both clinical and highly personal; she discussed everything from her own feelings of shame when she reflected on her hatred for anti-Semites to the concept creep of PTSD. Attendees shared their certainty that an event like the murders in Pittsburgh would happen again, and their fatigue relating to commemorations and events. One attendee, a Squirrel Hill native, described her desire for her neighborhood to no longer be synonymous with murder and tragedy.
The question of consecration — of repeated communal events revolving around tragedy — was in the minds of the BOR, Steinberg-Egeth said, when it came to planning the evening: “How do we decide what we keep commemorating forever and what becomes another statistic?”