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In Pittsburgh, Hard Questions Unsettle a Somber Commemoration

The community’s leaders wanted the ceremony commemorating the Tree of Life massacre to be free of politics and conflict. One rabbi, and many congregants, felt differently.

Mark Oppenheimer
November 04, 2019
Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Attendees gather for a public memorial service honoring the lives lost in the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall on Oct. 27, 2019, in PittsburghPhoto: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Attendees gather for a public memorial service honoring the lives lost in the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall on Oct. 27, 2019, in PittsburghPhoto: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Last Sunday night, I attended a “community gathering” on the first anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, the exact place where a year ago the city gathered for a mass vigil the night after the shooting. The event last year was planned in less than 24 hours, whereas the anniversary event was planned over many months. The first was raw and jagged, whereas the second, while mournful and somber, was carefully scripted. It was, quite obviously, meant for the “community,” as several Jews I knew had said knowingly, earlier in the day, explaining to me why they would not be attending. What they meant was, “It’s for the gentiles.” The Jews had done their gathering—at daily minyan, all year, saying Kaddish; at the High Holidays; the day before, Shabbat; and that very Sunday morning, when all three congregations that lost members gathered for a joint Shacharit service. It was after that service that an officer of one of the congregations told me, “I have football to watch later.”

The reality is that there have been two stories this year—more, actually—running in parallel. There has been the public story, in which all rabbis have performed perfectly; all money has been allocated fairly; all victims’ relatives have been supported; and the Jews are redoubling their efforts to ensure a vibrant Jewish future in Squirrel Hill. This is a story which the gentiles want to believe and with which the Jews are happy to collaborate. It’s broadly true, it speaks to the genuinely unusual resilience of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh, and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If people keep smiling, their faces do grow to fit the masks. That’s part of how people get over grief.

The mass gathering on Sunday was the capstone spectacle of this narrative. Organized principally by Rabbi Amy Bardack, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, it was unquestionably well done. There was a uniformed flag procession, after which athletes from the University of Pittsburgh proceeded down the center aisle and laid flowers on the stage. A crisply produced movie featured a montage of relatives of the deceased. A Christian minister and Muslim lay leader spoke movingly. The county executive and the mayor read a short poem, together. Rabbi Doris Dyen, a member of the Reconstructionist congregation Dor Hadash, which lost a member in the attack, offered the Birkat HaGomel prayer, for those who have come through danger, and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of Tree of Life, spoke against hate and in favor of hope (his promise to fight the “four-letter word” that is “hate” has become his signature campaign in the last year).

It had been a day of unprecedented cooperation. All the area congregations had agreed not to sponsor any commemorative events of their own, instead directing people to the events planned by the Federation. People could sign up—and did—to go to various sites for community service; I dropped by B’nai Israel’s cemetery, where three dozen Jews and non-Jews were busily raking leaves. Then there was community-wide Torah study at Rodef Shalom Congregation. There were blood drives, special events for teens and for old people, a tree planting, and a chance to “help out your librarian by identifying missing books” at the Squirrel Hill branch library. And meanwhile, drop-in mental health services were available all day at the JCC.

(UPDATE: Bardack, who could not be reached before this piece went live, responded afterward by saying, “This wasn’t Jewish leaders like myself or anybody else who asked that that day be apolitical—it was not a top-down decision, it was a bottom-up movement of those most closely impacted. The guidance that if you ask anybody who is an expert in mass-casualty events—the guidance has to come from those most impacted, the family of the deceased, those physically impacted, and those people asked that their loved ones deaths not be used as fodder for political agendas.” She also noted that she made these points, about it being a victim-centered event, in her opening remarks at the event itself.)

Throughout the day, I talked with Jews who talked to me about what was missing—the other story, that is. Some wanted to know why there wasn’t more discussion of white supremacy, or the anti-immigrant sentiment that motivated the shooter (according to his own words). For some, the other story was money—Tree of Life has said it will rebuild, but will the whole community be expected to contribute funds for a new building for an aging and shrinking congregation? One woman—who had lost a relative in the massacre—just told me she was sick of all the talk of healing. The healing talk wasn’t letting her heal.


But, as always in these cases, there is somebody urging somebody else to be on message. In this case, the urging wasn’t subtle. On Sept. 11, 2019, an unusual meeting was convened at the offices of WQED, Pittsburgh’s public television station. At the station’s building on Fifth Avenue, in the city’s upscale Oakland neighborhood, adjacent to the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, about 20 journalists met with about 20 members of the city’s Jewish community to discuss coverage of the upcoming anniversary of the attack. Those in attendance included the news director from the local NPR affiliate, TV and newspaper reporters, employees of the local Jewish federation and the Jewish social-work agency, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life, and relatives of victims.

The purpose of the meeting, as described later in an article by two journalists who helped convene it, was to “to overcome misconception and mistrust” between the media and those they cover. According to Andrew Conte, a former journalist now teaching at local Point Park University, and Darryl Ford Williams of WQED, the meeting generated general rules which those in attendance felt the media should follow. And some of the suggestions, laid out in the article by Conte and Ford-Williams in Harvard’s Nieman Reports newsletter on Oct. 15, were useful. For example, they asked reporters to respect the multiple Jewish holidays in October—it’s not just Rosh Hashanah—and reminded them that members of three congregations, not just Tree of Life, were murdered that day.

So far, so good. But then the document began—bizarrely, for a piece of writing by professional journalists—to announce what stories were fair game and what weren’t. “Amplify the stories the Jewish community wants to tell,” it read. “The community would like Oct. 27 to be free from politics,” it went on. The document also insisted that the “primary focus should be that the attack was an act of anti-Semitism.” And, even more emphatically: “If you don’t tell the story of anti-Semitism, you’re not telling the story.” And, finally, it urged reporters to “Focus on how the community has grown, emotionally and spiritually over the past year.”

In its well-meaning attempt to honor the feelings of a community that has suffered greatly, the document asked the impossible of the free press whose duty is to bear witness to what they witnessed. It is not for one group of reporters, working with select victims or family members, to say what the media’s “primary focus” should be. Nor can we promise to write about how “the community has grown, emotionally and spiritually”—indeed, what does that even mean? And whatever it means, what if it isn’t true? Maybe some people didn’t “grow,” but were traumatized or shattered. That’s for reporters to try to figure out.

I had this document in mind the night of Oct. 27, at the Soldiers and Sailors event. It seemed that this “gathering” was the objective correlative of the document. Nobody said “tragedy,” nothing was “political.” The night was meant for mass catharsis, and it delivered, I guess. It did what it was supposed to do: offer no news at all. It was a well-behaved evening. It was quiet, and dignified, and nothing about it felt particularly Jewish.

Until, that is, near the very end. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman—whose wife Beth Kissileff, has written for Tablet—is the spiritual leader of New Light, the smallest and least-discussed of the three congregations that lost members. He hid in a closet with three other congregants during the shooting; one of them opened the closet door and was shot dead. He has been to hell, and back, and sometimes is still there; he has spoken and written movingly of his trauma and depression this year. He speaks quietly, and sometimes haltingly. His turn came near the end of the hour; I wasn’t sure that he would speak at all.

Most of his talk, which was longer than any other, was ho-hum. At one point, he addressed the media, and I began to bridle a bit, wondering if these were more talking points about how we need to be cheerleaders. They weren’t. “We need to go gently in this second year and understand what trauma means,” Perlman said, “and not to retraumatize members, and to know when a hot story—maybe it can be told next week, and to leave us alone, so maybe we can mourn.” Fair enough; I always try to tread lightly. But then he said this: “And I would like the government, this year, the federal and state government, to finally take action on gun control.”

Now this was something.

“Leave us not delay for the sake of the victims of this crime,” he continued, “and we must begin to eliminate some of these weapons, and we must figure out a way to get weapons out of the hands of some of the killers.”

And then he got a standing ovation. I stood too, peering over the other people standing, trying to see if anyone wasn’t standing, and while there were some blocks of resisters—a few rows of high-school-looking bocherim stayed in their seats—it seemed that the room wanted to hear this message. When the time came, it had not been a reporter who broke the rules, injecting politics into the day, refusing to stay focused on “how the community has grown, emotionally and spiritually.” It was a rabbi.

And why should I have been surprised? In a room half filled with gentiles, an experienced pulpit rabbi had done something Jewish, which is that he had offered up an idea. In the days since, I have asked myself if I was so cheered because it was an idea—gun control—that I happen to agree with. And the answer is no. I was as happy to see the section of Orthodox boys crossing their arms in disagreement as I was to hear the standing ovation. I don’t buy the self-serving progressive idea that Judaism is only about “asking questions” and “arguing”; it’s also about mitzvot, the things we must do (and arguing about how do to them). But that’s what Perlman was doing: offering up a vision for doing that which must be done. Three of his congregants were blown to bits, and here he was, talking pikuach nefesh—saving Jewish lives. He says gun control, maybe you say let’s arm to the teeth. But we’re not free to desist from the conversation, and we won’t gain much if we try to stifle it.


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Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.