Debi Salvin was among seven members of New Light Congregation who traveled to Charleston, S.C., earlier this year to pray and march during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
Salvin’s decision to participate was driven by a search for “healing,” she said.
“For me, being around people who went through the same thing — so they understand how you feel and what you’re going through, because words just really can’t even begin to cover what you’re going through when you lose a loved one to murder — I knew that it would be good for me.”
Salvin is the twin sister of Dr. Richard Gottfried, one of 11 Jewish worshippers killed in the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building. Prior to the trip, Salvin and other New Light members learned from someone unfortunately familiar with violence committed in a religious setting. During a January visit to Pittsburgh, Polly Sheppard described how in 2015, a white-supremacist killed nine African-Americans at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Sheppard survived the 2015 shooting, and during her Pittsburgh address recounted how after the murderer opened fire on those nearby, he passed her over and said, “I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”
Sheppard’s visit to Pittsburgh impacted Salvin, as did the weekend in Charleston.
During the trip, Salvin and others visited Mother Emanuel and participated in services led by the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning. In the midst of the Sunday prayers, Manning invited the Pittsburgh delegation to approach the front. When the group neared the altar rail, congregants from Mother Emanuel embraced the group in a collective hug.
The physical and emotional bond was palpable, said Salvin.
“As a Jew, sitting in a Christian church, I don’t follow Christianity so [the service] is not going to have the same meaning for me as it would for a Christian,” she explained. “But being in the room with people who were there to support you in a religious setting, because the massacre happened in a synagogue, to me — the way we were welcomed, we were honored, we were mentioned, that they wanted to stand with us in solidarity — that’s what I mean powerful.
“Being around people who have experienced what you have experienced starts the road to healing, and I say that because it’ll be eight years … that I lost my only child,” she added. “When he died there were people who have also lost children who came, and they talked to me, they told me about their experiences, and I call them my fellow path walkers. They got me through the initial horror of losing my only child, so when I talk about profound loss I have had some experience with it.”
Salvin was accompanied on the trip by her husband Don Salvin, sister Carol Black and sister-in-law Peg Durachko. Since returning, the group has reflected on their journey and one experience in particular. While in Charleston, Salvin reconnected with relatives she hadn’t spoken to in years. It is a practice that has been repeated since her brother was killed nearly four months ago, with cousins, distant relatives and bygone friends all reaching out.
Peg, my sister-in-law, told me, “Well that’s Rich trying to reunite everybody,” said Salvin. “That’s just part of who he was. He loved life. He loved his family. He loved what he did,” she said of her murdered brother.
“People looked up to him and admired him, and he did it in a very unassuming way. He was just one great guy, and I feel very fortunate to have not only been his sister but his twin.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.