Congregations devasted by massacre move forward
While repairing the building is relatively “easy,” Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers said, the more difficult question is, “How do you rebuild your congregation?”
As Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash begin the long process of healing after the anti-Semitic massacre of Oct. 27 that took 11 lives, other area congregations are providing them space and support for the immediate future.
“We are going to be in Rodef Shalom [Congregation] for quite a long time,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of TOL*OLS.
Rodef Shalom’s Levy Hall will be the location for Friday night and Saturday morning services for TOL*OLS congregants. Office space will be provided there as well.
“All our area synagogues have reached out,” noted Myers. “The area churches also have reached out to offer us space.”
TOL*OLS chose to relocate for the time being to Rodef Shalom, Myers explained, because New Light and Dor Hadash had opted to use space offered to them at Congregation Beth Shalom.
“Beth Shalom has generously offered whatever space we need, but I felt it would be a burden upon one synagogue — and our leadership felt the same way — to take on the onus of the needs of more than one synagogue,” Myers said.
New Light will be holding services in Beth Shalom’s Helfant Chapel for the “foreseeable future,” according to New Light co-president Stephen Cohen. “Beth Shalom is incredibly accommodating.”
Dor Hadash held services in Beth Shalom’s Homestead Hebrew Chapel last weekend and will do so again this coming Shabbat. The congregation is currently “considering several options to meet the myriad needs of our congregation,” said Beth Silver, secretary of Dor Hadash.
Na’amat USA Pittsburgh Council, which also had been housed in the Tree of Life building, will be using office space at Rodef Shalom, according to Jackie Braslawsce, that organization’s executive director.
The first order of business for TOL*OLS staff prior to moving into office space at Rodef Shalom will be to “get into the [shul] to identify what are we taking with us as we move over,” Myers said.
Last week, Myers removed one Torah from TOL*OLS, and it is being stored for the time being at his home; it soon will be transported to Rodef Shalom for his congregation’s use.
“People will have some comfort to say it’s our Torah,” Myers said. “Obviously, any Torah is our Torah, because it is the Torah of all our people. But to know it’s a Torah that is the property of Tree of Life, they can say, ‘Our Torah survived also.’”
Myers, at the request of the FBI, also removed two other Torahs that were in an ark that had been damaged by gunfire; they are currently being kept in an ark in the main sanctuary of the Tree of Life building outside of the crime scene.
“The FBI has been so respectful and compassionate,” Myers recounted. “They didn’t want to touch the ark out of respect, which was really beautiful. So, I was there with them, and I moved the Torah scrolls one at a time. Somehow — through what, I don’t know — not one scroll was pierced by a bullet. That’s just amazing. Amazing, because the doors [of the ark] were open [during the attack]. The curtain was closed, but the doors were open.”
Neither the Dor Hadash nor New Light arks suffered any damage, according to Myers.
The TOL*OLS weekday morning minyan, for now, is joining with that of Beth Shalom.
“Amongst the deceased were people who were our morning minyanaires,” Myers noted. “Right now we are at Beth Shalom, and there is no immediate plan for the future of the minyan. The minyan will continue, but it will be something to talk about particularly with the morning minyanaires.”
After the FBI completes its investigation, the Chevra Kadisha and ZAKA (the Jerusalem-based international rescue unit) “will move in to begin the difficult work of cleaning up,” Myers explained.
While all “human remains” were buried last week along with the victims, Myers said, there is blood that remains at the crime scene, and that blood will also be buried.
His congregation plans to move back into the TOL*OLS building once it is repaired, Myers said. “Hate will not chase me out of my building, because then hate wins.”
While repairing the building is relatively “easy,” noted the rabbi, the more difficult question is, “How do you rebuild your congregation?”
“Just like you rebuild a damaged building one brick at a time, you rebuild one person at a time,” he explained. “I anticipate there will be people who will not be able to step foot in that building again, which shows that this assailant — and I will not use his name — he took away more than 11 lives.
“This is not really about murder and a capital crime. It’s also robbery. He took that which he did not have the right to take: people’s faith, people’s comfort in a house of worship, people’s freedom to worship, which is guaranteed in the Constitution.”
Myers intends to attend to his flock “one person at a time, which is my real responsibility,” he said. “How do you rebuild a congregation that is right now so terribly wounded? Platitudes aren’t enough. The well-worn trite phrases sometimes can ring hollow. So, sometimes it’s just a matter of giving someone a hug, reassurance. It’s speech without words.”
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light, knows that he will be having some difficult conversations with his congregation in the days and weeks to come as well.
“Our hope is to move back into Tree of Life, but I don’t know when that is going to happen,” Perlman said. “Our space, [the New Light Chapel in the basement of the Tree of Life building], was intact, but that doesn’t include feelings that people have.”
Details will need to be “sorted out by the board and the congregation,” Perlman said. “I know I would like to be back in our space, but some people have qualms about going back there. Three of us survived. I don’t know how the other two feel, or the [victims’] family members, their spouses, their children, their siblings. They may have trouble going back to that space. I haven’t asked them, and I don’t know what the future holds. I do know we want to stay together.”
The massacre at Tree of Life “will forever identify us,” said Myers. “We have the choice to use that identification as a burden or we can use it as a privilege. I choose to use it as a privilege, to carry on the legacy those 11 martyrs would want us to carry on. I don’t believe for a moment that any of them would ever want us to close our doors and give in to hate. In their memory, we will persevere. We will reopen. They deserve no less.”
For the time being, Perlman is focusing on just being there for his congregation.
“I’m trying to answer every email and call I get and to reach out to people, to reach out to the survivors, and having times of remembrance,” he said. “Time will heal, and we will get through this.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at