Pittsburgh Jewish Community Commemorates Second Anniversary of Tragedy

In this Oct. 29, 2018 photo, a makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Amidst the pandemic, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh mourned those killed in the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.

Eleven were murdered by a far-right anti-Semite as they gathered on Shabbos, the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.

To honor their memory, a day of community service is being organized for Sunday by the Pittsburgh branch of Repair the World, a Jewish nonprofit. Activities include a blood drive, food distribution and cleanups of Jewish cemeteries.

Coinciding with the commemoration will be publication of an anthology of essays by Pittsburgh-area writers, reflecting on how the attack impacted them and their community. Co-editor Beth Kissileff is the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who took shelter in a supply closet with three members of his New Light congregation during the attack. One of them, 87-year-old Melvin Wax, left the closet before it was safe, and was killed.

Most of the commemorations were planned by a group that included the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Community Center and members of the three congregations. One of the group’s co-chairs lost her brother in the shooting; the other lost her mother.

Organizers have strived to offer emotional support. One-on-one counseling will be offered virtually, and there’s a tent set up near the synagogue where people can access in-person support from humans and comfort dogs in a socially distanced environment.

Planning committee member Amy Bardack, director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Federation, said the pandemic posed challenges.

“Once you can’t do everything in-person, there aren’t as many opportunities for healing,” she said. “Last year we had chaplains, therapists helping people face-to-face. That can’t happen this year.”

Of the three congregations based in the synagogue in 2018, only Tree of Life, the host, plans to return when the building reopens after renovation. There’s no timeline yet for that project; the congregation has hired consultants to help with logistics and wants to accommodate other organizations and activities.

Before the pandemic, Tree of Life was holding services at Rodef Shalom, a historic building completed in 1907. But since March, in-person worship and group activities have been halted in favor of virtual gatherings.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said his appearances on Zoom and social media, livestreamed from his living room, have gained a loyal following, including a woman in Australia who joins Tuesday classes in which he discusses prayers offered the preceding Friday.

“During the pandemic, people are seeking community,” he said. “We try in any way to help them find solace and hope and inspiration.”

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