Since Oct. 27, area law enforcement and first responders have blanketed Pittsburgh’s Jewish community in an unyielding embrace. Last week, community members publicly hugged back.
On Feb. 6, more than 300 attendees joined as Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh celebrated its 72nd annual dinner by honoring those whose “sacrifices and contributions on Oct. 27, 2018,” ensured the safety of Squirrel Hill’s Jewish community, explained Dan Kraut, Hillel’s CEO.
Commendations from school officials were followed by laudatory remarks from Mayor Bill Peduto.
“People look for heroes and they look for it in different places, but we’re with heroes here tonight,” said the mayor before calling attention to officers Daniel Mead and Michael Smidga, two of the first responding units to arrive at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27. “It should be said there’s very little doubt that had the shooter gotten out of the building, he would have gone to another location. He had other weapons in his vehicle, and he had additional ammunition that he did have to use. These two officers were able to put their life in jeopardy in order to make sure that never happened and those are heroes.”
Joining Mead and Smidga in recognition were members of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, Pittsburgh Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, Pittsburgh Public Safety Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At several points throughout the evening speeches were interrupted by thunderous applause for those individually identified and their collective divisions.
Being the subject of so many standing ovations was “overwhelming,” said Mead.
“I’m not used to it,” he said. “I’m just an average guy living an average life, and they come down here like this, I mean the support has been overwhelming. The people have been fantastic. The support has been something else, it really has.”
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of New Light Congregation, described the evening as “emotionally charged.”
Perlman, who survived the Oct. 27 shooting, delivered a prayer in gratitude of the first responders and asked for a complete healing to those injured. “I had prepared something in my mind, but you know all I wanted to do is pray for them,” he said.
For the rabbi, Hillel Academy’s dinner was a chance to finally come “face to face” with his rescuers, he explained. “I didn’t realize until I got up there all these people who came to our rescue, and I was just really overwhelmed.”
The evening was memorable for other honorees, including Rabbi Elisar Admon, who received the Chantze and Donald Butler Teacher Recognition Award. Admon, who apart from serving as program coordinator at Hillel Academy’s boys middle school and high school, teaches Torah, Navi, Talmud, Jewish law and Hebrew language, was instrumental in the aftermath of Oct. 27. Along with Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation, Admon quickly developed a relationship with members of the FBI and ensured the 11 deceased were treated with the highest dignity afforded by Jewish law. Years earlier, as a member of ZAKA in Israel, Admon became an expert in facilitating traditional Jewish burials for victims of terrorist attacks and other tragedies. He shared his knowledge and practices by training members of Pittsburgh’s chevra kadishas immediately after Oct. 27.
As attendees at Hillel Academy’s dinner heard of Admon’s tireless efforts, surprise guests entered the back of the Marriott City Center’s ballroom. They were members of Admon’s family who had flown in from Israel to see him honored. Embraces and cries were shared as the surprise unfolded.
Helping reiterate the school’s sense of gratitude was a video incorporating statements and tunes regarding the honorees. Titled “The First Responder Song,” and created by Shmideo, the material struck a much appreciated note, said viewers.
“I love this video they made with the children and the song, it was great. You got to find something laughable, to laugh about, and I appreciated that too,” said Perlman.
The following day, Peduto tweeted a link to the video and wrote, “The First Responder Song — Amazing video from the students of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Academy in Squirrel Hill, to the men & women who serve in Public Safety. Well worth watching from beginning to end!”
Before leaving the Feb. 6 event, the mayor said, “There’s a lot of pain and hurt that’s throughout all of the city, and especially for the Jewish community, but as we start to get closer to that one-year anniversary, I think we’ll just have to watch one another and be able to find ways to bring laughter to a lot of people. So having it begin tonight is a good start, but there’s still a lot of healing that must happen.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.