Victims of the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building soon will be receiving “compassion payments” from the millions of dollars donated in the wake of the massacre, according to a report released from the independent volunteer committee that was charged with allocating the funds.
The committee, convened by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh last November, has been working for the past few months to determine how best to distribute the more than $6.3 million that was donated to the “Victims of Terror Fund,” which the Federation launched hours following the attack to help the victims, the affected congregations and the community.
More than 8,500 people, companies and organizations made direct contributions to the Victims of Terror Fund, with donations coming from 48 states and at least eight countries.
As several additional fundraising efforts were established by others, the committee estimates that more than 50,000 people contributed either directly or indirectly to the fund.
“The response from the Jewish, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, national and international communities was immediate and overwhelming,” said Meryl Ainsman, chair of the Federation’s board, at a March 5 press conference. “There has been an outpouring of love and support from people around the globe, representing virtually every ethnic and religious group. An act of hate against Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh carrying out their religious beliefs and spiritual practices was felt personally by millions as if this horrible indignity had been perpetrated against all of humanity.”
The committee tasked with deciding how to fairly allocate the money was formed through a vote by the Federation’s board of directors, and was comprised of prominent civic leaders “to make sure it had the ability to make decisions independently from the Jewish Federation,” said Ainsman.
David Shapira, chairman of Giant Eagle Corporation and a former chair of the Federation’s board, chaired the committee. Other committee members included Susan Brownlee, former executive director of the Fine Foundation; Jared Cohon, president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University; Steve Halpern, president of Woodland Management and a Federation board member; Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh; Charles Perlow, chairman of McKnight Realty partners and a Federation board member; and Nancy Rackoff, an estates and trusts attorney at Eckert Seamans.
The three congregations that were in the Tree of Life synagogue building during the attack were invited to send representatives to the committee meetings. Those representatives were Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation; Jon Pushinsky, a past president of Congregation Dor Hadash; and Sam Schachner, president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation. Ainsman, as well as Federation president and CEO Jeff Finkelstein, were also invited to attend the meetings.
“No amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one’s life; no amount of money can fully compensate for a life that has been violently knocked off course and suddenly filled with unanticipated and daunting obstacles; and no amount of money can ever completely heal our hearts or our communities,” the committee’s report states.
The committee, in determining how to distribute the funds, considered what it presumed to be donor intent where none was specified, the “perspectives and experiences of a number of victims,” and the “availability of other resources to meet certain needs,” according to the report.
The committee also considered, “where contextually appropriate,” the means by which funds established after other mass casualties were distributed, and consulted with Washington, D.C.-based attorney Ken Feinberg, who administered funds for victims of 9/11, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the Las Vegas shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, and the murders at Virginia Tech.
The committee met formally nine times between mid-November and mid-January, and again in February to finalize decisions.
“We had to go through a process of how to define who the victims are,” Shapira explained at the press conference. “The obvious victims are the people who were killed or wounded, but it is clear they are not the only victims. There were people in the synagogue who were not killed but watching their friends and in some cases relations being killed. There were people who were on the premises but who were not yet in the building.
“Then there was the question of whether there were victims other than people,” Shapira continued. “So, one thing that was pretty clear to me was that the [Tree of Life] building was a victim. And it was pretty clear to all of us, I think, that the three congregations were victims, too.”
The committee also wanted to acknowledge the first responders, “who were both saviors and victims,” Shapiro said.
The majority of the money, $5,352,893, will be distributed to those whom the committee found to be “most directly impacted by the incident.” That group includes the families of the 11 worshippers who were murdered, the two worshippers who were seriously physically wounded, and those who were trapped in the building while the attack was occurring. Others in this group include some people who were outside of the building during the attack, as well as the injured police officers.
The committee did not distinguish awards based on financial or other circumstances of particular families or individuals, according to the report.
The sum of $4,367,523 will be divided among families of the 11 people who were killed and the two people who were seriously physically injured.
The nine people who were trapped inside the building during the attack but who were not physically injured will receive payments totaling in the aggregate $436,752.
An amount of $48,428 will be divided among a group that was outside the building during the attack. The number of people in that group has not yet been determined.
A sum of $500,000 is set aside for compassion payments to injured police officers.
“To be clear, payments to the seriously wounded victims themselves and to the families of the worshippers who were killed are not viewed by the Committee to be compensation for what are irreparable losses,” the report states. “For some, the payments will help cover practical expenses, such as funeral costs, medicals bills or lost income, although distributions from victim funds such as this one are given without any limitations on their use. Furthermore, the Committee hopes that these payments will serve as a comforting reminder to all recipients of the expressions of compassion that came from thousands of people around the world.”
The remaining $950,000 will be used to support the congregations and promote communal healing, according to the committee’s report. Included in this category is reconstruction of the Tree of Life synagogue building, and seed funding for memorialization and education. Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation will each receive $100,000 from this sum, and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha will receive $450,000.
Members of these three congregations have “special human needs, since they were intended targets of the attack, and those killed and seriously injured came from within their midst,” according to the report.
“The compassionate gift designated by the Independent Committee to the victims and/or their representatives, will help our congregation to address numerous needs of our congregants as we recover from this tragedy,” reads a statement issued by New Light Congregation.
Dor Hadash likewise expressed appreciation for the work of the committee and the donations that came from around the world.
“Congregation Dor Hadash is immensely grateful to the Oversight Committee for taking on the incredibly difficult task of determining how donations should be distributed,” reads a statement from the congregation. “The Committee listened to all voices — victims, congregants and community members. They devoted countless hours to ensuring a deliberative process and an equitable result.”
Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation will be receiving more funds than the other two congregations because it owns the building where the attack occurred; Dor Hadash and New Light were tenants. Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation will incur most of the costs to repair or reconstruct the building, which will likely be “a costly, complicated and extended process,” according to the report.
“The monetary gift designated by the Independent Committee will help our synagogue to be restored so that it will again become a prayerful place,” Schachner, president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, said. “This donation will be of help to Tree of Life as our congregation moves forward.”
The memorialization, commemoration and education effort will receive $300,000.
“It is impossible to imagine that this community could move forward without honoring the individual victims, without memorializing this tragedy to help ensure that nothing like it ever is repeated, and without addressing the hateful, anti-Semitic roots of these killings through the power of education,” the report states, calling for the Federation to “take the lead in forming an appropriately independent, broadly representative and well-led Commission to push forward with this important work.”
Michele Rosenthal, the sister of brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were murdered in the attack, expressed appreciation for the work of the committee.
“We understand this process was not an easy one, but we felt the Committee led by David Shapira was sensitive to the affected victims and their families and demonstrated heartfelt compassion,” Rosenthal wrote in a statement.
The Federation has ceased accepting donations to the Victims of Terror Fund, but each of the three congregations continues to accept donations. Donations can also be made to the Federation at jewishpgh.org/help-jewish-pittsburgh-heal/.
A copy of the full report can be obtained by visiting the Federation’s website, www.jewishpgh.org. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.