Congregations address donations while moving past attack
Gifts raise questionsStill too early for certain decisions

Congregations address donations while moving past attack

Lay leaders describe the many considerations when dealing with charity.

Since Oct. 27, flowers have continued to be placed outside of the Tree of Life synagogue building. 

Photo by Adam Reinherz
Since Oct. 27, flowers have continued to be placed outside of the Tree of Life synagogue building. Photo by Adam Reinherz

More than $8 million has been donated to funds established by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the three congregations targeted in the Oct. 27 attack that killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue building. The money has not yet been disbursed, however, due to a desire for patience and best practice, said leaders from Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash.

“These are special donations. They require a great deal of thought and a great deal of conversation to determine the right way to make a distribution,” said Stephen Cohen, New Light’s co-president. “We have looked at how other mass shooting distributions have been made and are strongly guided by the procedures and protocols adopted by these other tragedies.”

Having spoken to those unfortunately familiar with mass shootings, they said, “the process goes much slower than we like,” and there is a balancing act at play, echoed Sam Schachner, Tree of Life’s president.

“While the outside world is understandably interested in funds and donations, we are still very much in the process of healing,” said Ellen Surlo , Dor Hadash’s president.

In the days following Oct. 27, donations surged. A GoFundMe page created by Johns Hopkins student Shay Khatiri surpassed $1 million dollars by Nov. 1.

Gifts resumed steam around the holidays, and continue to come “in any which way,” said Barbara Caplan, New Light’s co-president.

GoFundMe, Facebook and the congregations’ websites have provided donors worldwide giving opportunities.

“We are eternally grateful for the donations,” said Cohen.

“The generosity of people never ceases to humble and amaze us,” added Schachner.

“Everything that happened to us, even in the weeks following Oct. 27, happened so quickly that we barely have enough to time to say, ‘Thank you so very much for your thoughtful support’ on a timely basis. We’re getting there.”

These days the lay leaders are largely addressing donation-related concerns: Some funds were designated for specific congregations, other gifts were given to individual congregations for particular purposes or in memory of congregants lost, money was given to Tree of Life as a catchall for Dor Hadash and New Light, which will then need to be divided, and contributions — including a $70,000 check from the Pittsburgh Steelers in cooperation with Underground Printing and Tim Hindes, creator of the “Stronger Than Hate” design — were made to the Our Victims of Terror Fund. According to the Federation’s website, the fund is “earmarked for the psychological services, support for families, general services, reconstruction, additional security throughout the community, medical bills, as well as counseling and other services that may prove necessary for victims and first responders during their recovery.”

Determinations for the “more than $5 million dollars” given to the Our Victims of Terror Fund is “really being run separately from the Jewish Federation,” said Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.

Sam Schachner, Tree of Life’s president, is humbled by the generosity of donors.

An independent committee chaired by David Shapira has been meeting with “families of the deceased and the people who are injured and getting an idea of what their needs are.”

Shapira declined to comment, but congregational leaders praised his committee’s activities.

“They’re following an upstanding appropriate process. They’ve done a tremendous amount of good,” said Schachner.

The committee has been aided by the recommendations of Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney experienced in administering victim compensation funds, including those related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 9/11 attacks.

“We’re working parallel with the Federation group to identify what the definitions of victims are,” said Schachner. “If you look at Ken Feinberg’s model, he advocates for a certain definition. … We are trying to balance precedent with the unique situation we have.”

“We are going to proceed carefully and with much thought,” added Cohen.

Parsing the details of donor intent and collective fairness is requiring the efforts of many individuals, explained the lay leaders.

Accordingly, committees have been established at each of the three congregations.

In some cases, “board members are working two jobs” trying to deal with this, said Schachner. “We’re aware that we have to take the community’s perspective and pulse on anything we do.”

“We can never go back to the way things were on Oct. 26. We at New Light, and I am sure this is true for members of Tree of Life and Dor Hadash, are all trying to adjust to a new normal. But it is very difficult. Everyone reacts differently. And for some, Oct. 27 was yesterday,” said Cohen.

“All of this is a process,” said Schachner.

“We are moving forward. We are taking appropriate steps to audit what we receive and identify best practices for what we do with those donations, and we’re trying to be respectful of all involved in the process.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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