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Activists, Survivors Call For Action At Ceremony Marking 6 Months Since Tree Of Life Shooting

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
A crowd walks from Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill to Schenley Park to plant a tree as part of a ceremony on Sunday, April 28, 2019. The event marked six months since 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Just one day after a gunman killed one and wounded others at a synagogue near San Diego, locals gathered to remember the 11 people killed in Pittsburgh six month ago in a similar massacre targeting Jewish worshipers.

Family, friends and members of the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations, which all shared the Tree of Life building, on Sunday read the names of the victims killed at the synagogue in October. The ceremony marked half a year since the shooting.

Participants were joined by local and state lawmakers, as well as gun-control advocates, at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, about a mile from where the shooting took place.

“We will never forget those we lost as we work to keep others safe, and spare other families such terrible losses," said Carolyn Ban, one of the event's organizers and a member of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence.

The previous day’s attack was a stark reminder that this type of violence happens too often, said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

"It was surreal that we have to relive this again and again and again for our friends that we reach out to in Southern California," said Fitzgerald, referencing a vigil he attended last night in honor of victims of the Poway shooting. "But it could be anywhere and we know that."

Mayor Bill Peduto followed by reading a text message he sent to Poway Mayor Steve Vaus on Saturday.

“Today the people of Pittsburgh are with you, Chabad of Poway, and the people of Poway,” the text message said. "People will look to you for strength and answers. Be available, be honest and transparent, and be strong. Please let me know if you need anything."

Dan Leger, who survived the shooting in Pittsburgh, pointed to the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S., echoing calls from others at the ceremony for stricter gun-control measures.

"We shouldn't have to be here today because of Columbine, because it was more than enough,” Leger said. “We shouldn't have to be here today because of Parkland, because it was more than enough. We shouldn't have to be here because of Newtown, [Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Aurora, and] ... Pittsburgh because it was more than enough. We shouldn't have to be here because of Poway, yesterday, because it was way, way more than enough.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Homewood), state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) and Pittsburgh City Councillor Erika Strassburger were also at the ceremony, condemning such shootings and calling for action. Gainey specifically called on corporate sponsors to “step up and do their part," meaning he wants the business community to take action to combat gun violence. 

Tim Stevens, CEO of Black Political Empowerment Project, praised Dick’s Sporting Goods, which is headquartered in Coraopolis, for its decision to stop selling assault rifles. He added "the time is now" and that thoughts and prayers aren't enough.

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A tree is planted in Schenley Park as a symbol of the community's growth following an attack at Tree of Life synagogue in October that left 11 Jewish worshipers dead.

Following the ceremony, a large group walked to Schenley Park to plant a Black Gum tree, native to western Pennsylvania.

Some chanted during the walk over, saying "Looking forward with love, not hate. Stop the silence, end gun violence” and "No more caving to the NRA. Enough is enough!"

Organizers of Sunday's ceremony said the tree wasn't meant to memorialize what happened at the synagogue in October, but rather to symbolize the growth of the community. It'll eventually grow a large canopy and produce fruit that birds can eat. 

"We are a people who embrace life," said organizer and Dor Hadash member Dana Kellerman. "We're going to take what was one of the most horrible tragedies ... and make something good come out of it." 

90.5 WESA reporter Sarah Kovash contributed to this report. 

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.