When Alan Hausman began going through the volume of mail addressed to “Tree of Life” in the aftermath of the Oct. 27 anti-Semitic attack, among the envelopes was one small package containing a child’s toy in a blister pack.
“It was to make us feel better,” said Hausman, vice president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation and a public safety officer for more than three decades. “I cried for half an hour.”
That toy was among the thousands of packages and letters that began to arrive for the three congregations affected by the massacre — TOL*OLS, Dor Hadash and New Light — as well as the families of individual victims, survivors and “the Jewish community,” almost immediately after the attack.
Now, congregational staff and volunteers are undertaking the massive and heartbreaking task of opening each piece of mail, sorting it and delivering it to its intended recipient when appropriate.
It has not been easy.
Hausman estimated that the congregations have received more than 14,000 letters and cards since the attack, as well as packages containing gifts. Because all three congregations were housed in the Tree of Life synagogue building and because that building is closed for the foreseeable future, all that mail had been stored at the post office until about three weeks ago, when it was moved to a room in Rodef Shalom Congregation.
That room is filled, from floor to ceiling, with boxes of mail that are being sorted and logged by a team working several hours every day. Because of law enforcement concerns, no photos were allowed to be taken in that room.
While mail specifically addressed to New Light or Dor Hadash, or particular families, is delivered accordingly, mail generically addressed to “Tree of Life” is presumed to be intended for all three congregations, according to Hausman.
“We don’t view it as Tree of Life mail,” he said. “We know that we’re just the name on the building and it is really directed to all the congregations that were affected.”
In addition to sympathy cards and notes, the congregations have received stuffed animals, prayer shawls and knitted items “for comfort,” Hausman said.
“One of the earliest things we opened had a lot of weight to it — was about 15 pounds,” he recalled. Volunteers opened the package and found a polished rock slab with the names of all 11 victims engraved onto its front. Two days later, the volunteers turned the rock around and saw that the Mourner’s Kaddish had been engraved on its back.
“Some packages have 50 notes, one from every kid in a school, or every congregant in a church or a synagogue,” Hausman said.
Also within the mail are many drawings of trees, posters and mobiles with Jewish stars. The mail is coming from all over the world, including South America, Europe, the Dominican Republic and Guam. Several letters have come from Jewish inmates, and some of those have been written in Hebrew.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light. His congregation has received “well over 1,000 messages, between emails and letters and cards.”
The first card that Janet Cohen, who is tracking the mail for New Light, received two days after the shooting stated “You don’t know me, but my heart goes out to you all,” she recalled.
A Jewish Heritage Club from a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., school had apparently assigned its members research projects about the victims, Janet Cohen said. One student wrote about New Light member Mel Wax, saying, “I know he was a generous and kind person, because I researched him.”
Another note came for the family of Mel Wax from “Tim,” with no last name, and no return address.
A women’s study group from a Young Israel congregation in Great Neck, N.Y., sent 20 personal notes, one from each woman. Students from Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles sent notes intended for specific families. A stack of handwritten letters tied with a ribbon came from STEM Prep Academy in Nashville, Tenn. A letter written to survivor Barry Werber came on paper with the printed words: “Never Again.”
Sorting through all the notes is heart-wrenching, said Janet Cohen. “It’s hard to do, but it makes me feel good. It’s a mitzvah for me to do it.”
Because of the sheer quantity of mail, not every piece can be read closely at this point in time, Hausman said, but each letter and card will be read in its entirety eventually, then documented and put into a digital format that can be shared with the community.
“This stuff is touching,” Hausman said, noting that the mail has included cash and checks from people on fixed incomes. One letter contained $5 with a note saying “sorry, it’s all I can afford.”
Larger amounts of cash and checks are also contained within the envelopes. All of the money received is recorded and deposited into appropriate accounts, Hausman said.
Mixed within the piles of mail are also routine phone and electric bills that have come to the congregations that need to be sorted and paid, once they are found.
And now, the congregations are beginning to receive Chanukah cards, Hausman said.
Although it is a daunting task “as soon as shloshim is over, we will respond,” said Stephen Cohen. “We intend to respond to every single package, post and letter.”
Dor Hadash has formed a committee to write thank you notes, Dor Hadash President Ellen Surloff said, and hopes to include religious school students in the process. They will respond to children who have sent drawings and condolences from around the country.
TOL*OLS is planning on running ads in papers across the country to express its gratitude to those who have sent letters, money and objects of comfort, Hausman said.
“I know personally that we will never get a proper thank you to everyone,” he said. “That would take years.”
His congregation will send receipts and written thanks to anyone needing that documentation for tax purposes and “for larger gifts,” Hausman said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh also has received more than 200 pieces of mail related to the Tree of Life shooting, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing.
“We’ve been getting everything from a simple letter to a 11 inch by 17 inch rolled up collage from a school in Israel,” Hertzman said, adding that all mail is opened by a Federation staff member and then forwarded to the appropriate family or congregation.
While it is not an emotionally simple task to open and sort thousands of pieces of mail, it is comforting, Hausman said. “The bottom line is there is much more love in the world than evil.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at