On Monday, Oct. 29, less than 48 hours after 11 Jewish community members were killed in an attack at Tree of Life synagogue, students from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh returned to their Beacon Street campus.
As the children entered the Squirrel Hill Jewish day school, located less than 1 mile from the tragic site, they prepared for shacharit, the morning prayer service. Boys over 13 donned tefillin. They were joined in prayer by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and Diaspora affairs, and Jason Greenblatt, senior advisor to President Donald Trump, along with members of their respective staffs.
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy’s principal and education director, explained how Bennett’s visit came about.
“Once Minister Bennett came to Pittsburgh, one of his aides got my phone number and texted me and asked if Mr. Bennett can come to school,” he said. “We went back and forth. Our goal as an institution was to try to keep the day as normal as possible for our students, to discuss the issue, give them an outlet through which to talk about their emotions, provide support if needed, but to really drive home the message that A) they are safe and B) their job today is to live and to continue to thrive as Jews.”
The difficulty, explained Weinberg, was “when Mr. Bennett texts you and asks to come to the school, it’s hard to imagine how that fits in with the goal of keeping it a normal day.”
Bennett understood Weinberg’s concerns.
“We talked about what we wanted the students to get from his visit was a sense of chizuk (strength), to understand that the whole world is with them in support and the concept that kol yisrael areiviem zeh la zeh, that all Jews care for one another and that we are all one family,” Weinberg said.
Then, just as Bennett and Weinberg were discussing an appropriate course of action, Greenblatt’s aide reached out to Weinberg as well.
“He actually called me directly from a restricted number [and] asked if he could also speak at the school,” Weinberg said. “We said we wanted to avoid speeches, we wanted to keep things normal, so he also had the idea of davening shacharit with us.”
Monday morning, as the prayer service inside the school continued, students removed the Torah from its ark. Surrounding the sacred scroll was one student, who served as a gabbai (an assistant in the service) and Greenblatt’s aide, who offered to read the designated portion in Hebrew. As the Torah reading continued, the student called up those honored to have an aliyah — including Bennett.
As the service continued, a new face appeared. It was Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who also arrived to show support to the students and their school.
Before the service concluded, Rabbi Yisroel Smith, assistant principal of fifth- through 12th-grade boys, recited one more prayer, the mi sheberach, a request for healing. When it came time to insert the name of the sick, Smith said, “Daniel ben Sarah,” the Hebrew name of Dan Leger, a member of Congregation Dor Hadash.
Leger, who lives next door to Hillel Academy, remains in the hospital after suffering gunshot wounds in Saturday’s attack.
After the service, Weinberg thanked the many who had joined the school in prayer and called Bennett up to speak. Invoking the words of Maimonides and 20th-century sage Rabbi Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik, Bennett shared traditional teachings and words from the heart.
“I am here to tell the Jews of the United States, the Jews of Pittsburgh,” he said, “that Am Yisrael is with you.”
“The minister was extremely thoughtful in his remarks,” said Weinberg.
“It was very meaningful,” agreed Yikara Levari, assistant principal of fifth- through 12th-grade girls. “His message to them was basically that Israel is thinking of us here and that we have their support and he hopes to see us in Israel soon.”
Having Bennett, Greenblatt and Dermer at the school for the service was an “incredibly powerful takeaway for our students,” said Weinberg. “You see these people on the news, you see these people in politics. I think that’s a huge role model for our kids.”
The visitors, Levari said, helped explain that “what happened here in Pittsburgh, though it happened in our own backyards, it is affecting the entire Jewish people, the entire world. I think the message of support from all over is a big one. The Jewish people is like a body, and if one part of the body is hurt, the whole body needs to help it heal. And that’s what the whole rest of the Jewish community is doing now — helping us heal.”
Rabbi Akiva Sutofsky, Hillel Academy’s school counselor, said, “It’s a serious day.”
Though they were trying to keep things normal, Sutofsky said, “we’re not trying to live in a bubble and we can’t ignore what happened. We’re very much a part of the community, and the school as an institution was affected.”
Sutofsky emphasized that it was important for the kids to know “that if they have certain emotions, they need to talk to somebody, and at the same time it is also appropriate to bring in people from the outside like Naftali Bennett and other officials to show kids that this was a big deal.”
Greenblatt spoke informally with students and staff throughout the morning.
“I saw kids who were going about their everyday lives, even though inside I’m sure they were shaken up,” he said. “Over the coming weeks and months, they will continue to work through these tough questions that there aren’t good answers to. They’ll work them through with their parents, with their teachers, their educators their social workers and with their faith leaders.
“I saw a community that’s grieving but at the same time trying to pick up the pieces and move forward and understand what happened.”
Greenblatt also visited other members of the community that day.
“I had a chance to speak with an individual who knew many of the victims,” he said. “She shared some of her memories of them with me. It’s stories like these that really bring this tragedy to life. They lift the victims’ names off the pages of the newspaper and show the tangible loss to the community of these special individuals.
“I was incredibly impressed with the community as a whole. It was quite a learning experience and makes me go home feeling very energized about Jewish life here. It fortified me to see how a community can come together in the face of such a despicable act.”
Bennett had a similar reaction to his visit.
“These are wonderful boys and girls that care a lot about their community, and it’s clear that they’re a bit worried, but they’re strong,” he said. “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh. All Jews care for each other, we are one.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.