Philly Community Finds Unity After Pittsburgh Shooting

Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel hosted Shabbat services on Nov. 2. | Bryan Leib/Facebook

On the first Shabbat since the deadliest attack on Jews in United States history, Bryan Leib went to synagogue. He went to Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and, during services, peeked a row ahead of him and landed on a young girl hanging on her father’s arm.

She offered Leib a wave and a smile.

“It hit me,” Leib said. “What would have happened at that moment if a gunmen came into BZBI and killed her because he’s Jewish?”

Looking around the synagogue Nov. 2, Leib’s mind wandered. What if Pittsburgh had been Philadelphia? What if Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha had been BZBI?

Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. have been on the rise in recent years, and the shooting in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which left 11 dead and more injured, pushed that reality to the forefront of the national conversation.

Jewish people in the Philadelphia area spent the week reckoning with the aftermath.

“When we are all united as Jewish people, there’s nothing that can stop us. We can’t be ashamed. We need to fight back against anti-Semitism. It’s a disease in this country, and it has been for a long time,” said Leib, the Republican candidate who ran for Pennsylvania’s 3rd District.

After services at BZBI, Leib joined about 130 others at Chabad Young Philly, where Rabbi Doniel Grodnitzky set up a tent in the courtyard to accommodate overflow attendance. An armed security guard watched over the service.

Grodnitzky had intended to spend the week at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in Rockland County, N.Y. His plans changed after the shooting.

“We actually have a lot of people from Squirrel Hill that come regularly to our programs,” Grodnitzky said. “We knew we had to go into full gear and do something special to bring the community together.”

He thought back to Rosh Hashanah, when he had bumped into a woman on the street. She identified herself as Natalie Hess, a former professor of bilingual and multicultural education and English language learning at Northern Arizona University.

She’s also a Holocaust survivor.

“We had a special connection,” Grodnitzky said. They blew the Shofar together and went their separate ways.

On Nov. 2, Hess walked into Chabad Young Philly along with her brother, daughter and two of her grandsons. Grodnitzky had invited her to speak during Shabbat, and with the community reeling from the shooting, she agreed to tell her story.

“She spoke about how the only reason she’s alive is because of one miracle after miracle after another,” Leib said.

“She’s literally escaped death multiple times in miraculous circumstances,” Grodnitzky said. “She’s so thankful to be alive and have this beautiful Jewish family.”

Earlier in the week at Mishkan Shalom, Rabbi Shawn Zevit paid tribute to the victims. The tragedy felt personal for him, given that he spent three years as a visiting rabbi at Dor Hadash, which shares a building with Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. Several members of Dor Hadash have joined him in Philadelphia, and so on Oct. 30 he led a memorial service for more than 100 people. “It was very powerful,” Zevit said.

Later in the week, Zevit hopped on a plane to Toronto for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. When he went to register, Zevit was approached by a tall man wearing a head covering. The man offered a hug.

“He said, ‘You don’t know me. But I saw your kippah, and I know you’re hurting right now. We all are, and I wanted you to know we are with you.’ And off he went,’ Zevit said.

On Nov. 2, employees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia held a vigil in the lobby of the Jewish Community Services Building for the 11 casualities. Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of Jewish Federation, is a native of Squirrel Hill and shared some words with his colleagues.

“He kind of broke down,” said Laura Frank, Jewish Federation’s manager of public relations. “He knew some people that were deceased.”  

As the afternoon wore on and Shabbat grew closer, employees streamed out the elevator and made for the exits, past a round table topped with 11 burning candles. Some stopped for a moment, taking in the memorial. Then they walked out into the night, into a Shabbat unlike all the rest.

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