Imagine explaining the past three weeks in Pittsburgh Jewish communal life to someone unfamiliar with Squirrel Hill, its topography or the unbreakable bonds shared by those residing within the confines of its tree-lined, historic, occasionally labyrinthine roads. That is exactly what local leaders did for 100 visiting North American Jewish officials in the form of a Nov. 13 bus tour and presentations.
The one-day solidarity mission, which was spearheaded by the JCC Association of North America, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Community Services, demonstrated support of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and served as an opportunity to share best practices in communal crisis response.
“From your short stay here we hope you’re able to see who we are as a city and a community,” and “who and what we’re made of,” said Meryl Ainsman, Federation board chair, to guests inside the JCC’s Katz Auditorium.
Throughout the day, speakers explained the effectiveness of organizational responses to the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life building, pointing out that the results stemmed from years of collaborations.
Amanda Allen and Rebecca Elam, both of the FBI Victim Services Division, stressed that “relationships are critical,” and “you have to have a framework in place.”
The FBI’s presentation detailed the creation of a crisis center and the workings of fellow agents and analysts who provided “on scene assistance,” performed death notices and arranged spaces where information pertaining to financial and social services was delivered in a private and accessible way.
The JCC’s centrality became evident early on as this was somewhere families sought reunification and support, said Allen.
“Normally we wouldn’t pick the JCC,” because “it offers too much easy access” to “spontaneous helpers” and other avoidable disruptions, but “what worked with this event was meeting the needs of the community,” said Elam. “Victims felt safe here.”
Schreiber, the JCC’s president and CEO, told visitors that “if you don’t have relationships” established prior to an emergency “that’s not good. You cannot build relationships on the ground.”
It “wouldn’t have worked without collaborations,” echoed Golin, president and CEO of JFCS. There is no roadmap for this, but “we were able to be patient with each other.”
“We didn’t trip over each other,” said Schreiber. This was “not a time for turf wars.”
After hearing such advice, attendees were ushered onto buses and driven along a scenic tour of Squirrel Hill. Locations such as Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, Congregation Poale Zedeck and Blue Slide Park were pointed out by Jimmy Ruttenberg, JCC board chair and the designated tour guide, who shared childhood memories of Silberberg’s Bakery, Lenny Silbermann and basketball games.
Upon approaching the corner of Shady Avenue and Wilkins Avenue, Matthew Keller, JFCS board chair — in a moment exemplifying the complicated personal and professional relationship to the tragedy — explained to passengers that his introduction to the Oct. 27 event came by way of hearing his wife yell at their 10-year-old daughter for running indoors while holding scissors that morning. When asked why she would do something so dangerous, the child explained she had heard extremely loud noises outdoors, became scared and retreated inside.
Keller lives less than 200 yards from the Tree of Life building.
“This literally happened in my backyard,” he added.
After the busses parked, passengers exited and headed toward makeshift memorials outside the building. Brad Orsini, the Federation’s director of security, then escorted everyone indoors to a room, which since the murders had been restricted to FBI agents, crime scene investigators and members of the Jewish burial society.
Orsini credited the many nameless individuals who for weeks inspected, studied and cleaned countless spaces within the synagogue.
Rabbi Elisar Admon, who with Rabbi Daniel Wasserman headed the chevra kadisha, noted 30 volunteers spent 35 straight hours scrubbing pews, carpets and adjacent areas according to Jewish tradition.
“It’s painful for me to be in this space,” remarked Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, from beside a bullet-ridden lectern. “What do I do with people who never want to come in here again?” Unlike the Maccabees who restored the Holy Temple, “I am charged with healing broken souls.”
“We will rebuild and be back here because we are a tree of life,” he pledged. “Some branches are cut, but we’ve been here for 154 years and with God’s good graces we will be here another 154 years.”
Jewish communal professionals Rabbi Ron Symons and Rabbi Danny Schiff then read the names of the 11 Jews killed on Oct. 27 before reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.
On the ride back to the JCC, JCC Association President and CEO Doron Krakow said nothing could have readied him for what transpired inside the chapel.
“I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotion. l wasn’t prepared for the pain that was pouring out of the people who helped us by presiding over a service, by enabling us to participate directly in the mourning process, the grieving process,” he explained. “I wasn’t prepared to sit in a synagogue sanctuary defiled by bullet holes and physical damage and carnage, and have it simply be the latest in a long horrific history of anti-Semitism and brutalism and hate.
“I wasn’t prepared and I’m not sure how I might have been, but I was very proud to be sitting there with leaders from across Canada and the United States who came here to take a stand and to take a broken community into its embrace,” he added.
After eating a kosher boxed lunch, participants shared some final impressions.
“This is definitely a story of sadness and grief and horror,” said Jeffrey Finkelstein, the Federation’s president and CEO. But “it’s also the story of a resilient and strong community. This Pittsburgh community, this Pittsburgh Jewish community was incredibly strong before, and we are stronger than ever.”
“I think that of all the communities I’ve had the good fortune to come to know over now 25 years in national organizations in the Jewish world, I don’t know that I found one as remarkable as this one,” he said. “It is tightly knit. … It is incredibly proud of itself and the people that are a part of it. I think for the people who have gathered from across the field to be exposed to a community like Pittsburgh will be a source of pride.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.