For three congregations, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting ‘affects us every day.’ As a trial finally starts, they continue a difficult path forward.
The trial of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, scheduled to begin Monday, will focus largely on what happened during just a couple of hours on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018.
But for the three congregations that lost members that day — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light — there are years more to the story: The past that brought them together, a horrific day that linked them forever, and a future physically separated.
“We’re moving forward,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light. “We are dealing with a tragedy, we continue to deal with a tragedy. It affects us every day and it will affect us for the rest of our lives.”
Of the three congregations, Tree of Life is the oldest — chartered in 1865 by a group splintered off from Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh’s oldest congregation that is based in Shadyside. Tree of Life bought buildings Downtown and in Oakland before moving to its Squirrel Hill spot at the intersection of Shady and Wilkins avenues in the 1940s.
In 1899, a group of families that fled pogroms in Romania and settled in Pittsburgh chartered New Light, which eventually grew to be one of the biggest congregations among the large Jewish population in the Hill District. In 1957, New Light moved to Squirrel Hill, buying a mansion on Beechwood Boulevard and renovating it into their new synagogue.
Just six years later, Congregation Dor Hadash formed in Pittsburgh — originally as a prayer and study group and then officially affiliated with the politically and religiously progressive Jewish Reconstructionist Movement. Dor Hadash never owned a building, meeting at the Community Day School before renting space at the Tree of Life synagogue starting in 2010.
Around the same time, the upkeep on the Beechwood Boulevard property had become difficult to afford for New Light, which prides itself on being a small but active congregation. The congregation ultimately decided to sell the building and join Dor Hadash in the Tree of Life building. In November 2017, New Light moved in, walking their Torahs from Beechwood Boulevard to the Tree of Life building.
Tree of Life, which had lost members over the years because of an aging population and movement out of Squirrel Hill to the suburbs, was happy to have the company.
Different paths taken
On Oct. 27, 2018, New Light was about one week shy of its one-year anniversary in the building. That morning, New Light was just beginning its service in the basement, Tree of Life was in its second-floor sanctuary and Dor Hadash was meeting in a smaller room nearby.
When the gunman burst in, he shot and killed members of all three congregations — Jerry Rabinowitz from Dor Hadash; Richard Gottfried, Melvin Wax and Dan Stein from New Light and Joyce Fienberg, Rose Mallinger, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon and Irving Younger from Tree of Life.
The week after the shooting, all three congregations held a shabbat service together at Beth Shalom synagogue, Mr. Hausman said. From there, they’ve taken separate paths. And from the same tragedy, they’ve chosen different approaches to memorialization.
The Tree of Life congregation has temporarily moved into Rodef Shalom in Shadyside while members await the demolition and reconstruction of the Tree of Life building. “We made a decision right away that we were going to return,” said Mr. Hausman. “If not, this bad guy wins, and that certainly is not going to happen.”
But the building they return to will be far different in design, function and scope than the one they left.
“What we are building will be a wholly new American Jewish institution,” said Carole Zawatsky, chief executive officer of the new Tree of Life nonprofit.
Tree of Life has enlisted world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind, who has designed Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials all over the world, as well as the master plan for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center.
Not only will the building host Tree of Life’s religious services, it also will house the world’s only museum dedicated to antisemitism. Also in the plans are a memorial to those killed in the shooting, classrooms, offices, a social hall and a film screening room. The building also will serve as a space to host students and partner with universities, as well as become the new home for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
The planning process was slow-going at first, as the congregation grappled with what seemed like an enormous task. The Tree of Life building, now beginning the demolition phase, is tentatively scheduled to re-open in early 2024.
“Early on, we made the decision we were going to use this as a teaching moment — we didn’t really know how right away,” said Mr. Hausman. “Nothing like this fortunately had ever happened in the United States and there were no books, no guidelines. I’m sure we made a ton of mistakes in the early going, but sometimes that’s the best learning experience.”
Ms. Zawatsky was in Washington, D.C., the day of the shooting, working as CEO of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center. Even hundreds of miles away from Pittsburgh, her immediate response was concern for the safety of the congregations in D.C., feeling that all of Judaism was under attack. On the Monday morning following the shootings, she went to work with yahrzeit candles in her bag, lighting them with her staff to honor those killed in Pittsburgh.
“As I sit here in this role, it’s so abundantly obvious that this is what had to happen,” she said of the scope of the new Tree of Life building. “That we are obligated to use this terrible moment as a beacon for the entire nation and world. We’re not defined by our killers, but by what we create out of adversity and tragedy — it couldn’t have been anything else.”
As for New Light, they also initially believed their new location would be temporary, a space in Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.
Even a year after the shooting, Mr. Cohen was confident they would return to the Tree of Life building. But as time passed, they not only became comfortable in their new space in the Helfant Chapel at Beth Shalom, but heard from members of their congregation who still can’t drive by the building, much less see themselves inside it.
“Initially, we thought we had an obligation to go back because it was such a horrible thing, we needed to make a statement by going back,” said Mr. Cohen, sitting in their sanctuary at Beth Shalom. “But too many people said ‘I can’t.’ How could they go to a place that’s bullet-holed? And it doesn’t matter that the bullet holes aren’t there anymore. And it doesn’t matter that there’s marble and glass and it’s beautiful and world famous.
“The bullet holes are still there. They’ll always be there. And for some of our members who were most directly involved, that’s the message that we as a congregation took. And that’s why we’re here.”
After they made the decision in 2020 to stay at Beth Shalom, they didn’t want to wait any longer to create a space to mourn those who died, said Mr. Cohen.
Museum of Remembrance
They worked closely with the families of the deceased to turn an open-air, dirt-floor garage on their cemetery property into a chapel, memorial and mini-museum. On a sunny day, colorful light streams through stained glass doors that depicts themes from Genesis 21:1-22:24, the Torah portion intended to be read the morning of Oct. 27, 2018.
Stored in a glass case are the shofar that Gottfried would blow at services, the small travel prayer book that Wax used throughout his life and a section from the Torah that the meticulously-organized Stein would read every year, the date that he did so handwritten on the side from February 1985 to February 2018.
At their hillside cemetery above the chapel, headstones are spaced close together, following the old Romanian custom not to leave space for the devil to get in between the graves, said co-president Barbara Caplan. New Light member Sophie Masloff is buried there, as are Wax and Gottfried – their headstones overflowing with stones placed on top, as is Jewish custom.
Along the edge of a bluff in the cemetery, a large stone memorial shaped like a Torah honors Wax, Gottfriend and Stein as “holy martyrs,” with a Callery pear tree planted next to it that grew from the only tree to survive at the site of 9/11.
“All of these things have really been designed to give comfort by something physical that people can relate to,” said Mr. Cohen. “We’ve just felt that, the only way forward as an organization is we have to do something to remember and memorialize.”
As for Dor Hadash, the congregation moved into Rodef Shalom after the shooting, and plans to stay there.
“Our community has always looked at the community as having value, rather than the physical building,” said Dana Kellerman, communications chair for Dor Hadash. “Rodef Shalom has been a wonderful, welcoming congregation and while we have never regarded the physical building as an essential component of our congregation, the physical space works very well for us.”
Repairing the world
While plans for a physical memorial are still being discussed, the congregation has thrown itself into a different sort of legacy — advocacy for gun control and other issues they believe fulfill the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
“Democracy and social justice are really foundational values for our congregation,” said Dr. Kellerman. “We have been doing our best, I think, since our founding, but certainly even more emphatically since the shooting.”
Following the attack, members of the Dor Hadash Social Action Committee founded a nonprofit, Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence. The group lobbies legislators, endorses political candidates, raises money and marches at rallies. Following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, they partnered with student group March for Our Lives Pittsburgh to hold a large rally in Schenley Park, including a speech by Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband, Jerry, died in the synagogue shooting.
The congregation also has continued its advocacy in support of refugees, including its longstanding work with Jewish refugee resettlement agency HIAS — a group that was a repeated target of anti-Semitic online rants by Robert Bowers, the accused synagogue shooter. Dor Hadash, which has seen growth in membership since the shooting, also has a fresh focus on combating antisemitism.
We don’t join with the advocacy organizations on either side. ... The purpose of our congregation is to praise God.
Stephen Cohen, co-president, New Light
“We do recognize that we are going to be more visible because of the upcoming trial and we would like to use that visibility to also talk a little bit about anti-semitism and its tie-in to white nationalism and white supremacy,” said Dr. Kellerman, sitting in the library at Rodef Shalom. “We would really look to amplify our voice in a way that calls people to work for a world that is more inclusive, that is democratic, that pushes those anti-democratic, white supremacist, violent insurrectionist forces back under a rock where they belong.”
The congregation also has taken a stand against the death penalty for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, writing a letter in June 2021 to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the government “abandon its request for the death penalty,” as well as a similar letter to then-Attorney General Bill Barr in 2019.
Both Tree of Life and New Light have chosen to remain staunchly apolitical. “It’s not our job as a congregation to develop a stand,” said Mr. Hausman of Tree of Life.
For New Light, that decision came even before the shooting, when the congregation debated whether to take a position on gun control. There were vehement opinions on both sides, said Mr. Cohen, leading the congregation to decide to remain neutral. And it’s a viewpoint that has stuck.
“We don’t invite politicians to come talk to us, we don’t sign petitions, we don’t join with the advocacy organizations on either side. We just, we don’t have an opinion. Our members represent a large spectrum of the American population and that’s not the purpose of our congregation — the purpose of our congregation is to praise God.”
Individual members of each congregation of course are free to express their own views. Relatives of nine of the 10 people killed from the Tree of Life and New Light congregations expressed their wishes for the government to proceed with its death penalty case in a July 2021 letter to Mr. Garland.
As the trial nears, once again intertwining the three congregations, there will be more to navigate, any number of fresh decisions they wish they didn’t have to confront.
“It’s something that’s never been done before,” said Mr. Hausman, “so how do you do it?”
Anya Sostek: email@example.com.