Shortly following last October’s attack, after the bodies were moved from the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office, Shternie Rosenfeld was among those who volunteered to perform the act of shemira, guarding.
“The Jewish custom is that we do not leave the bodies alone until they’re buried,” said Rosenfeld during a Sept. 17 program at the Medical Examiner’s Office. “When I was asked to come down here to be with the holy bodies, to stay with them … I came through the door over there, and a very nice gentleman brought me in and took me to this room here and I just remember seeing the word ‘Grief.’”
As Rosenfeld sat in the Medical Examiner’s “Grief Room” and upheld Jewish tradition, she recited passages from Psalms. All the while she thought about her spiritual mentor, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “who campaigned for so many things in his life, but one of them was the power of words,” she said.
Rosenfeld understood the role she played, and the purpose of the place, but still couldn’t understand why her location was called the “Grief Room.”
“My feeling was I need words of comfort, of love and support, right now, and ‘Grief’ was what I saw.”
Months passed, and Rosenfeld, who teaches courses through her nonprofit, The Jewish Sisterhood, kept pondering why such a bizarre designation would exist for an area intended to console.
Finally, after speaking with one of her students about the matter, Rosenfeld worked up the courage to call the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Mandy Tinky, manager of operations, answered the phone.
Rosenfeld introduced herself, shared her experience in the “Grief Room” and suggested possibly changing its name to the “Comfort Room.”
Tinky was receptive, and described Rosenfeld’s idea as “beautiful.”
The small room, with its pale painted walls, black couch, matching armchair and flowers is typically used for families to make identifications, noted Tinky. “That’s the room that we will take them into so that we can discuss their individual loved one’s case with them and have privacy while we’re doing it.”
Tinky promised to speak with her administrators and other city staffers about the request. Shortly thereafter, Tinky contacted Rosenfeld and said the proposal was approved.
On the day of the rededication, Tinky promoted the value of changing the room’s name.
“Our primary goal in this office is to provide information and closure for families, and comfort them,” she said.
Rosenfeld noted she is pleased that those entering the room will better understand its comforting purpose, but also hopes people recognize that substituting one word for another is an act of defiance.
“The word ‘comfort’ is very empowering. It’s just a word, but we managed to transform something negative — being in grief — to something positive,” she said. “Terrorists seek victims, and the way we heal is not only to get through the trauma and grief,” but to transform “that pain and grief into something positive, into change, into growth.”
Following Rosenfeld’s public remarks, city employees, victims’ loved ones and congregational representatives observed as Daniel Leger, a survivor of last October’s massacre approached the door and removed a blue cloth covering. Appearing on the wall was a maroon plate with white lettering reading “Comfort Room.”
“Words are important, and we grieve when we lose people we love. I was privileged to be with the 11 people who died that day. Words don’t fit that incident. There’s no words to be able to encompass it,” said Leger. “We grieve and we heal, but in the meantime we do need comfort. So I think that the idea that this room is being renamed and dedicated in honor of the memory of those blessed souls is so appropriate.”
Karl Williams, Allegheny County’s chief medical examiner and a Squirrel Hill resident who met with victims’ families on the evening of Oct. 27 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, attempted to frame the totality of actions.
“The dedication today is just a small little remembrance that maybe when we pass it we will all keep it in our hearts, because it was extraordinarily tragic for this office too,” said Williams. “Maybe this is a beginning step of being able to have everybody in the community move forward and try to figure out their individual ways to deal with the event.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.