Funerals, shivahs, vigils and demonstrations of solidarity have filled the community’s calendar in the month since the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building. These public and private gatherings have united a neighborhood still reeling from the loss of 11 Jews murdered inside the seeming safety of a synagogue. But one event from weeks ago palpably remains at the forefront of the communal consciousness.
In the afernoon hours of Friday, Nov. 2, Shmuel Isenberg received a text message announcing a prayer service occurring outside of the Tree of Life building. Uncertain of what to expect, or who exactly had initiated the idea, the Squirrel Hill resident decided to attend.
Upon approaching the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues at 6 p.m., Isenberg made his way past people gathered near the 11 makeshift memorials and the accumulated flowers, cards and mementos placed nearby. He headed toward a small crowd collected in a street cordoned by police tape. Recognizing many of the attendees as fellow parents at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, Isenberg was handed a prayer shawl and asked to lead the Friday a ernoon service.
“Last January I lost my mother, so I am a Jewish mourner,” said Isenberg. Accordingly, “one of the responsibilities is to lead services apart from those on Shabbat.”
As the hour grew, scores congregated nearby. Several onlookers and passersby raised phones and recorded the scene. Isenberg neared the conclusion of the afternoon prayer service and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“I looked up at one point and turned to the building and saw ‘Tree of Life’ emblazoned on the wall, and it struck me, the events of what really occurred there in conjunction with what we’re doing,” he said.
With the names of the 11 victims in mind, he completed the hymn and passed the shawl to Ari Goldberg, who began singing Psalms welcoming Shabbat. Hours earlier, Goldberg, who was asked to lead the evening service, had considered what melodies to impart.
“On the one hand, you want it to be a joyous acceptance of Shabbos, but at the same time it’s such a solemn place and time that I didn’t want to pick a tune that would be inappropriate or someone might find disrespectful,” he said.
Rina Itskowitz, who attended the service, which was organized by Hillel Academy administrators, with her husband and five children, described the location as a place “where people basically sacrificed their lives.”
In praying there, said Isenberg, the worshippers demonstrated to those who sought “to wipe out Jews from this spot” that “our resilience lives on.”
As Goldberg melodically chanted, the crowd grew. Barely able to hear his own voice, he saw close to 100 people standing and swaying in prayer alongside. Upon reaching “Lecha Dodi,” a 16th-century liturgical poem, he was interrupted by Rabbi Elisar Admon, who apart from teaching at Hillel Academy’s Boys High School had supervised the Jewish burial rituals relating to the attack.
Admon commanded the crowd to stop. In the silence, he pulled from the pack a gentleman wearing a camel hair coat and spoke of the continuous commitment this man had shown to the Jewish community from the first moments after the shootings until the present day.
“People need to know what he has done for us,” said Admon. “We are safe because of him.”
The man, an FBI agent, began to cry. The crowd clapped and resumed singing louder than before. Moments later, the service was interrupted by the spontaneous chanting of “Al Hanisim,” a Chanukah supplication thanking God for the miracles performed in “those days.” Though not included in the traditional Friday night liturgy, much less weeks before Chanukah, attendees feverishly belted out Hebrew words associated with battles waged by the Maccabees and a rededication of the Holy Temple.
It evoked the sense that “even though our enemies have been rising up against us, we still prevail,” said Goldberg.
By then, night had fallen, and apart from the dim glow cast by the street lights, the memorial candles and the parked police vehicles nearby, there was no ability to see. When the service finally reached the Shema, the crowd recited it forcefully.
Bianca Labrador, of Verona, Pa., was among those who attended the service with children in tow. Days earlier, the former Kansas resident was at a loss as she struggled to put her 4-year-old daughter to sleep.
Crying out, the child proclaimed there were monsters beneath the bed, and monsters in the closet and monsters throughout the room. After reassuring her exhausted daughter that monsters do not exist, Labrador retreated downstairs.
“I looked at my husband and I told him, ‘I just lied to her,’” she recalled. “There are monsters in this world and one of them just attacked our community.”
She then began crying.
Labrador was born to a Jewish mother and raised Episcopalian. Prior to the Friday evening service, the only other formal Jewish function she ever attended was a funeral. When the Oct. 27 attack occurred, she reached out to a friend in California.
“I said to her that it makes me feel so bad because it’s a community I feel attached to, but not actually involved with,” said Labrador.
Within moments, Labrador’s California friend connected her through Facebook to Maya Beck, a Jewish Squirrel Hill resident whose cousins include Councilman Corey O’Connor and Father Terry O’Connor. Beck, who takes pride in her family’s openness and closeness, invited Labrador, her husband and their three children to the street-side service and a subsequent Shabbat dinner.
“You could really hear the pain of the community,” Labrador said of the makeshift prayer gathering. In that moment, “I allowed myself to fully process everything that had happened.”
David Knoll spent the service standing beside his three children. Like others, he wasn’t initially certain what to expect, but by evening’s end, with a tear-stained face, Knoll said he had undergone something profound.
“What we experienced there was absolutely incredible,” said the Squirrel Hill resident. “It certainly changed my life.”
At the service’s completion, the crowd began to wane.
Goldberg returned the shawl to its owner and found his children, some of whom who had been speaking with friends.
Before heading home, the Goldberg group walked past the 11 makeshi memorials — now since taken inside the Tree of Life building — each bearing the bold faced name of someone killed inside the building six days earlier.
Making their way down Shady Avenue, Goldberg said, “it was the first moment where it began to feel like some relief.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.