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Hundreds gather to remember the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims 5 years later

Hundreds of Pittsburgh residents, political leaders, family members and survivors came to Schenley Park Friday to remember the 11 victims killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

On the five-year observance of the mass shooting, religious leaders and survivors read poems and spoke about the meaning of what happened in profound, abstract and often religious terms.

Dan Leger, a member of Congregation Dor Hadash who was severely injured during the attack, and members of the Tree of Life and New Light congregations each read a portion of the poem, “Every Minute Someone Leaves This World Behind.”

“Every minute someone leaves the world behind. We are all in the line without knowing it. We never know how many people are before us. We cannot move to the back of the line. We cannot step out of the line. We cannot avoid the line,” Leger read.

The armed attack by a white supremacist on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill killed 11 worshipers from three separate congregations — Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life Congregation. The attack, in which several other worshipers and police officers also were shot and wounded, is believed to represent the deadliest antisemitic assault in U.S. history.

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In June, a jury in U.S. District Court convicted the now-51-year-old gunman of 63 counts, including hate crimes;the same jury sentenced him to death on Aug. 2.

Family members lit a candle in memory of each of the 11 victims. A group of students and a group of professional musicians played music on string instruments that had been saved from the Holocaust, including a piece composed shortly after the end of World War II.

The keynote speaker, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan, took time to remember each of the 11 victims in their uniqueness. As the lead prosecutor during the trial of the shooter this summer, Olshan said he learned about all of their lives in great detail.

“Despite all of the trauma and the tears and the heartache and loss, I am grateful,” Olshan said. “I’m lucky to have been part of this act of remembering so that there is not just a record of how 11 lives were ended, but also an enduring record of how 11 lives were lived.”

He remembered Melvin Wax: “Even in his late 80s, Mel parked away from the synagogue so that other people could have the spots closer. When his grandson was sick, Mel was there every day.”

He remembered Irving Younger: Irv Younger was the son of a Holocaust survivor. He and his wife adopted two children, and they fostered several more, treating each of those children just like their own.”

He remembered Rose Mallinger: “Rose Mallinger loved to dance. In fact, she loved to dance so much that when she was younger, she was somewhat of a wedding crasher showing up at random weddings. So she and her friends could sneak in and just dance.”

And he offered more remembrances of Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Joyce Fienberg and Richard Gottfried.

If the focus of the event itself was the spiritual remembrance of the victims and the survivors, current world events crept into the broader response.

In a statement, President Joe Biden said the pain of what happened in Squirrel Hill five years ago was deepened by the recent attacks by Hamas in Israel, and he said he was committed to fighting all hateful acts.

“We must recommit to speaking out against bigotry and hate in all its forms, whether it is racism, antisemitism or Islamophobia,” he said.

And one of the congregations that had been attacked, New Light, released a statement before the event indicating that its members consider recent statements about Hamas and Israel to be just as dangerous as the far-right ideology that inspired the synagogue shooter.

“Antisemitism exists not only among Nazi sympathizers and Christian nationalists on the Far Right but also on University campuses on the Far Left,” the congregation said in its statement. “Same tune — different words — same result.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey all briefly spoke in religious terms during the event, while several members of Congress, state representatives, Pittsburgh city councilors and other civic leaders looked on. Two jurors from the gunman's trial also attended.

“Nations shall not lift up swords against other nations. Neither shall they learn war any more,” Gainey said. “For all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know thy name, and all say amen.”

The commemoration ceremony on Friday was part of a week of events intended to honor the lives of those impacted by the shooting. On Sunday, community members can join in a variety of volunteer opportunities around the city in their memory.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.