On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, hundreds of Pittsburghers gathered once again to honor the 11 Tree of Life victims.
With a steady rainfall and an overflowing fountain as a backdrop, Jewish and non-Jewish citizens rallied at Point State Park to pay their respects, show their support for the Jewish community and call for more unity and peace.
“These events have to remind us how much we need to depend on one another,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf told the crowd. “Like many of you, I am still reeling. This anti-Semitic attack at a synagogue was an attack on each and every one of us. … Let’s keep hold of this spirit of unity. Let us be sure these lives were not lost in vain.”
The rally, hosted by the City of Pittsburgh, boasted big names among the local Jewish community, interfaith leaders, state politicians and a few household celebrities, including Franco Harris, Brett Keisel, Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks.
The event began at noon Friday with a moment of silence for the 11 victims of the Oct. 27 attack. Eleven students from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh then carried eleven candles on stage to commemorate each of the victims. Natan Azagury, a 10th-grade student who participated, said serving in such a capacity demonstrated the collective unity of the city and its Jewish community.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” echoed Katriel Camp, an eighth-grader. “It’s nice that they’re choosing Jewish children to light the way for their futures.”
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and Rabbi Cheryl Klein, spiritual guides for each of the three congregations attacked within the Tree of Life building, led a group of interfaith community leaders in Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach.”
“May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing, and let us say, Amen,” sang the clergy.
Though attended perhaps by fewer people than expected, organizers delivered a star studded cast of speakers, who imparted their impressions of Pittsburgh.
“People all over the world have marveled at the strength, the resolve and the love of the people of Pittsburgh, a community as we say stronger than hate and stronger than ever,” said Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.
Actor Michael Keaton, who once lived in Squirrel Hill, acknowledged the persistent rain and told attendees, “Thanks for showing up in this tough, tough weather, but you’re a tough, tough city.”
Representing Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams, the event included a video played at an emotional pre-game ceremony for the Pittsburgh Penguins followed by comments from Roberto Clemente Jr., who called himself a “Puerto Rican Jew,” Franco Harris and Brett Keisel.
Though referencing the Steel City’s status as a “City of Champions,” Keisel implored attendees to become something new. “
“We must become united as one, as champions of change,” said the former Steeler.
Actor Tom Hanks and Joanne Rogers, wife of the late Fred Rogers, praised the city for acting as a positive example of a community that does not let different neighborhoods divide it.
“A visitor will know Pittsburgh is a great city because Pittsburgh has been tested,” Hanks read from a letter composed by Rogers. “Thank you Pittsburgh for your example, for your inspiration and for your love of each other.”
Tacking on to the end of her letter, Rogers proclaimed, “Let us replace guns with hugs.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued a similar call, listing several recent tragedies related to gun violence throughout the country, including the death of 12 people at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and the death of two people at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Fla.
“Let Pittsburgh and Thousand Oaks and Tallahassee and other cities around this country show what a sacrifice means and what strength is about,” Peduto said. “That strength is not about how many guns you have, but strength is made by the compassion of your heart.”
Much like the speakers themselves, attendees at the rally came both to show their support and find a path forward.
Rebecca Lee, 41, came to the rally looking for guidance on how to “make something change.” She brought her 6-year-old son, Keegan, to help him understand more about the tragedy and to illustrate actions of accord.
The mother and son were carving pumpkins on Oct. 27 when they heard news of the shooting. It “stopped everything in our tracks,” Lee said. “It’s an important time right now to come together.”
Shawn Smith, a general contractor for the new Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh building, said he attended the rally to show support for the Federation. The atmosphere at work these days is solemn, he said, but they do what they can to keep good spirits and “let them know we’re behind them 100 percent.”
After Smith heard about the shooting, he called his boss and said they needed to do something. So they designed a shirt for those working on site that read “Stronger Together” with the first “o” replaced by a Jewish star and the second by a heart. He hoped the rally would help “bring the city together to mourn a little bit and move on as a community.”
Rep. Conor Lamb, (D-District 18), who stood beneath an umbrella beside attendees in the park, agreed.
“We all have our part to play,” said Lamb. “Those of us in public life, we have to take action, we can’t just talk about it and say ‘thoughts and prayers.’ We have to get bills passed, we have to convene experts, we have to train and pay our police officers what they’re worth.”
Contributing to the message of unity and peace, Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation, shared words typically recited by a congregation upon completing each of the books of the Torah: chazak chazak v’nitchazek, “be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened.”
“This resilient city of Pittsburgh will be strong and we will be strengthened by each other,” he said. “Our Pittsburgh Jewish community is strengthened by your support.” PJC