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Attack, then pandemic: Pittsburgh Jewish congregations cope

Steph Chamber/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP In this Oct. 27, 2018 photo, Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Two years ago, the three congregations sharing space at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue relocated after an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 worshippers. Last March, the congregations dispersed from their new locations due to the coronavirus pandemic and switched to virtual services.

On Tuesday, as they again mourn those killed on Oct. 27, 2018, they’ll also celebrate the resilience that has enabled them to persevere.

Maggie Feinstein of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, which has been supporting those affected by the attack, was impressed by how the congregations have coped with the pandemic.

“They started phone chains, thought about ways to reach their vulnerable population,” she said. “I found it incredibly inspiring that these three congregations, when crisis hit, knew how to pull together as a community and not leave anybody behind.”

The centerpiece of the commemorations is an online ceremony Tuesday evening that includes a performance by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo-Ma of a piece by Jewish composer Ernest Bloch.

And 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, who was hearing impaired, as a result left the closet before it was safe, and was shot dead.

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 and Rabbi 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.

Nearby Chatham University and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh are expected to share some of the reconfigured space. There also will be a memorial to those killed in the attack.

Before the pandemic, Tree of Life was holding services at Rodef Shalom, a historic temple 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 Facebook, 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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