Pittsburgh, Parkland survivors to speak on forgiveness at JCC
Daniel Leger, who was seriously wounded during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last October, shares insights on moving forward.
When hospital personnel removed the breathing tube that had been inserted after Dan Leger was shot on Oct. 27, and he was finally able to speak, one of his first comments concerned his assailant.
“The first thing I said was the Shema,” recounted Leger, a former nurse and hospital chaplain, and a member of Congregation Dor Hadash. “The second thing I said was ‘I love you’ to my family. The third thing was ‘God forgive him.’”
Leger was one of 13 congregants, from three separate congregations, shot by an anti-Semite that Shabbat. Eleven people died. Along with Andrea Wedner, a member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Leger survived his injuries.
Leger will be participating in a conversation on “Forgiveness and Repentance” at 3 p.m. on Yom Kippur, Oct. 9, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The conversation will include Ivy Schamis, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a survivor of the Parkland, Florida shooting, and will be moderated by Rev. Tim Smith, CEO of Center of Life and pastor of the Keynote Church of Hazelwood.
“The last year has been one where a great deal of challenge has come into play with regard to forgiveness, because when you lose 11 people to a murder just because they are Jews praying in a place of worship, it is very difficult for some people to package in the word ‘forgiveness’ when you think about that,” Leger said. “But for me, it’s been part of the journey.”
In the case of the Pittsburgh shooter, forgiveness “does not mean that I forgive this person for having killed 11 people, because I can’t do that,” Leger stressed. “The only people that can forgive him are the people he killed and they are incapable of doing that.”
What forgiveness in this context does mean, Leger said, “is it allows me to view all human beings — including this person who in many ways is an absolute monster — as one of God’s creations. He is made in the image of God just like I am. He made a horrible choice, he did a horrible thing. And he needs to be off the streets for the rest of his life. There is no question about that. But if I want to live my life and go forward, I have to find a place in myself that gets rid of the power that this act had over me.”
And yet, what happened on Oct. 27 “will always be with me,” Leger said. “I mean, my body has changed. My life has changed. My friends are dead. But I can’t let this thing continue to have power over my life and prevent me from doing the things I have to do. And by that, I don’t mean being able to go to parties and stuff. I mean being able to be active in my sense of being a Jewish person in the world, being a responsible person in the world. A person who will work toward the change in laws that let us come together rather than separate us.”
For Leger, it is important to move beyond anger, and to instead focus on positive actions.
“One of the reasons I am a member of Dor Hadash is because we do have this ‘pray with our feet’ attitude, and so I have tried to speak about the need to change the laws regarding gun safety,” he said, although “it’s hard because I can feel my anger rise when I do speak about it.”
Despite — or perhaps in some ways because of — what happened to him on Oct. 27, Leger believes ardently in the power of kindness.
“Chesed makes the world go round,” he said. “Kindness is at the heart of what it is to be a human person in the world. There is so much that gets in the way of our being kind all of the time and some people unfortunately are so hurt and so damaged that they just can’t quite get there. I understand that. I appreciate it. But if it weren’t for kindness, the world would not be a functional place. We would all just be animals.”
For Schamis, a social studies teacher whose Holocaust history class was stormed by a gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, finding forgiveness for the man who killed 17 people at her school — including two students in her own classroom — is difficult.
Her first instinct, she said, is not to forgive the murderer in Parkland.
“It’s one thing to forgive someone who wrongs you, but not in that kind of way,” she said. “And honestly, the forgiveness really has to come from the victims, and the victims don’t have any ability to forgive.”
Schamis was teaching a lesson on how to fight hate on college campuses when she witnessed two students “get blown away by an AR-15. There is a lot more to it than just, ‘Oh you’re forgiven,’ when the person that did it isn’t even asking for forgiveness. He doesn’t even have any repentance that I know of.”
Forgiving him “is not happening,” she said.
Instead, she is inspired by those who have been using their pain as motivation for positive actions. One surviving spouse in Parkland is running for school board, another is working to “pass better gun laws,” and many of the surviving students also have become anti-gun activists.
Schamis quoted the words of a Holocaust survivor: “Pain should not be wasted.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at