In the days following the massacre at the Tree of Life building, the international, national and local media swarmed upon Squirrel Hill, relentless in their pursuit of interviews with survivors and the families of victims.
As the rabbi of New Light Congregation — one of the three congregations targeted in the attack — Rabbi Jonathan Perlman was barraged by requests from journalists to speak about the nightmare he had just experienced.
“That first week or so, people were knocking on my door,” recalled Perlman, who saved himself and two other congregants by moving to a dark storage room during the attack. “People were slipping cards under my door that said, ‘Katie Couric wants to speak to you.’”
The soft-spoken rabbi did not respond to the request to speak with Couric, nor most of the others. He saw no point in doing so.
“I was traumatized, I was grief-stricken, I was really worried about keeping myself together and what I was going to do,” said Perlman, who, 10 months after the mass shooting, is on the road to personal healing. “I really didn’t feel it was helpful to speak to the press. I really felt like, for me, that was very self-serving and just got in the way of what I really wanted to do and it would only re-traumatize me if I had to tell my story over and over and over again. So early on, I decided that if I were to speak, I would speak to be helpful to the Jewish community.”
It has taken Perlman awhile to come to terms with the heartbreak and trauma of Oct. 27, and to recognize his own role as a first responder.
“You know, I really did not consider myself a hero in the event that happened in October, and I keep reminding myself that I was able to save myself and two others,” he said. “But I tended to really suffer and be depressed about the other three that lost their lives downstairs and in the building. I really had no control over anything else. I felt very helpless in terms of other people in the building.”
After hearing gunshots that Shabbat morning, Perlman ushered the three congregants who were in his sanctuary — Barry Werber, Carol Black and Mel Wax — to a dark storage room and instructed them to hide. After some time, Wax opened the door to the storage room to see what was going on, and was shot by the gunman. Two other New Light congregants, Richard Gottfried and Dan Stein, were murdered in the synagogue kitchen as they were checking supplies for the next morning’s brunch.
“I began to come around to the idea that I also was a first responder in a way, and that as a result of my actions I was able to save people’s lives,” Perlman said. “I was able to see myself as God’s servant and a builder of other lives. That was a remarkable feeling, and one that I also have communicated to some of the first responders when I went to visit them at the hospital or saw them at events.”
Although he has received many requests to speak, the rabbi has been deliberate in choosing which invitations to accept, and has kept them to a minimum. In December, he addressed the Colel Chabad in New York, identifying with the group’s mission of Jewish unity and combating hunger in Israel. That month, he also spoke at the USY International Convention in Orlando, Florida, charging the Conservative teens to lead the way in fighting gun violence and anti-Semitism. In February, he spoke at a Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh dinner honoring first responders, including Rabbi Elisar Admon who worked with the FBI in the aftermath of the attack to ensure the dignified treatment of the victims’ remains.
Although the media storm persists, Perlman has managed to keep a low profile.
“I thought they would stop after six months, but they kept coming and coming and coming, and I just didn’t want a constant diet of this event,” he said. “It’s interesting, I can take the constant diet of death that comes through hospice work, but not the constant diet of fear and despair and the idea that I will never see some of these people ever again.”
In some instances, when he has shared his story with journalists and authors, he has felt betrayed, he said.
“Sometimes I find out the hard way, that they really weren’t interested in my story, but they were interested in getting me to say what they wanted me to say, and I really don’t like that,” Perlman said, describing a culture “of people using victimization as a way of telling a good story, and being like vultures who wait to see what is going to happen with the people who are in pain.”
A very real concern of Perlman’s is the “re-traumatizing” of those most keenly affected by the massacre. Earlier this month, he sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, imploring him to forgo the death penalty for the Pittsburgh shooter.
“I wrote that I really want him to just plead guilty without a trial and be able to have a life sentence without parole,” Perlman said. “I know that is a little bit controversial, but I think that more people agree with me than not for the very reason that we should not allow ourselves to be re-traumatized. Enough with the madness. Just keep this out of our peaceful city.”
Perlman has a gentle demeanor, exuding earnestness, traits that will serve him well in his newest endeavor, full-time staff chaplain for the department of palliative care for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center system. Beginning Aug. 26, the rabbi will be serving Jewish and non-Jewish palliative care patients at Shadyside Hospital, and possibly other UPMC facilities as well. He has been doing chaplaincy work for the last 10 years at various facilities.
He will continue to serve as rabbi for New Light, which is essentially a part-time position.
“I keep trying to take care of New Light,” Perlman said. “We always welcome new members. We are not the country club or the big show in town. Our congregation is older, but we have some very spirited volunteers who want to do good and who want to keep our family together.
“This has been a year where we really have had to step back and take care of ourselves,” he continued. “A lot of people were involved in helping us do that outside the synagogue and we were grateful to them.”
Perlman recognizes that he has been changed as a result of the massacre.
“I think I got to know trauma in its true sense,” he said. “I have had trauma in my life — personal trauma. This was trauma I have not yet been able to process, so in that sense it changed me because it made me feel more sympathetic to those people who are in trauma, to be able to express empathy, to be able to understand how God heals us and how God is present for us, and to connect with all these people that are undergoing violence, reaction to the violence, all over the world. So if someone shoots up people in Palo Alto or Dayton or Israel or in Europe somewhere, I feel it very deeply. It takes me about a day, two days, to really come back to my senses. That’s how I’ve been changed. It’s become sort of hard-wired in me as someone who feels deeply.”
Although he is healing, Perlman is not planning on expanding his public persona, and will not be “running around the country and giving speeches and responding to every news source. That is something that I started from the first and it’s going to get smaller and smaller.”
Instead, he intends to focus on “rebuilding community.”
“As we say in Psalms, ‘We build the world with compassion,’” he said. “So if I can be the person who inspires those acts, let God act through me, let me be his instrument. And whatever brings us closer to peace and compassion, whether it is getting people to draw closer to the synagogue service, or draw closer to making visits to the hospital, bikkur cholim, or to have an insight into Torah learning or to feel a greater togetherness, a sense of unity with the Jewish people and to show courage and self-esteem, let God help me to do that.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at