What was once intended to be an international food festival, costing attendees $45 each, became a free concert for families with a virtual unlimited supply of complementary hot dogs, hamburgers, turkey sandwiches and even cups of cholent. Following the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life building, event organizers of the Nov. 11 affair quickly realized the neighborhood, still in a state of communal shloshim, needed something other than an upscale kosher smorgasbord of chardonnay and charcuterie.
“When the events happened last week we just felt that it wouldn’t work,” said Rabbi Chonie Friedman, of Bnai Emunoh in Greenfield, “so we decided to transform it into a community event where everybody could come and get their spirits lifted a bit and be together as a community beyond just for mourning.”
Housed at Congregation Beth Shalom, the afternoon event was headlined by three of the Orthodox Jewish world’s top singers: Avraham Fried, Shulem Lemmer and Lipa Schmeltzer.
Fried, who is actually Friedman’s uncle, decided to participate after he heard about the adopted focus.
“I said, ‘Hey, if I can be part of something and help to heal than I am in,’” said the artist, who has released more than 30 albums since 1981.
“We’re all in this together,” echoed Lemmer, whose signing this past summer with Universal Music Group made international news — Lemmer is among the first haredi Orthodox American singers to get a major record deal.
The purpose of the concert was to “strengthen each other and give us strength to go forward, to go on with daily life,” said Lemmer, a Belz Chasid.
What happened at the Tree of Life building was personal, said Schmeltzer. “For every Jew, when something happens on the other end of the world it’s like it happened in my home, and that’s why I came as a volunteer to show that even people who dress up Chasidic, with the whole black and white garb, are supportive. When it comes to supporting one another, it doesn’t matter if their dress is yellow or black or no yarmulke or yarmulke — we’re one.”
“This was an attack on all of us,” echoed Lemmer.
The artists performed an array of recognizable tunes before the diverse audience.
Schmeltzer paid homage to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by interspersing the number with a freestyled overlay, while Lemmer belted out “God Bless America,” the same tune he delivered on Sept. 16 at Fenway Park during the seventh inning of a Boston Red Sox and New York Mets game.
“Together we are stronger,” affirmed Fried. “That’s the message.”
Festival attendee June Labovitz, of Squirrel Hill, agreed.
Standing beside her sister, Eileen Berger, of Squirrel Hill, Labovitz said, “I feel like I’m related to everybody here. We’re all Jewish and we all need each other.”
It’s a common thought, said Faigy Chapley, of Greenfield.
Perched over the crowd, which police estimated at approximately 1,000, Chapley said, “Now that I’m up here watching this beautiful sight, I’m able to see all different diverse Jews coming together to gather. It’s really meaningful and unique. We’ve been around different communities and this doesn’t happen.”
The unity of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is truly remarkable, said Geri Coffey, of Squirrel Hill.
Coffee, a Friendship Circle volunteer who planned on returning to the Murray Avenue site later in the day, added, “This is unbelievable. I’m so proud of our community for what they’re doing. That’s what’s so important, to reach out to one another.”
Speaking after the event, Friedman said it was a success.
“One family told me this was the first time that their children have gone out [since Oct. 27]. They’ve been scared for the last two weeks,” said Friedman. “So to see the kids smiling and celebrating it makes it so worth it.
“Our kids needed it, our families needed it. Bnai Emunoh is so proud to do this. There are so many people in this community, and each plays its part and we are happy to do our part.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.