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City Prepares To Commemorate Tree Of Life Synagogue Attack

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

As Pittsburgh prepares to commemorate last year's deadly shooting at a synagogue, Jewish leaders say returning to the synagogue remains a priority. 

While there is no set time frame, "it is indeed our goal we will one day return to Tree of Life," said Tree of Life's Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was leading Shabbat services when the shooting began.

The three congregations that were attacked on Oct. 27 — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — now worship at two other synagogues.

Leaders from the congregations were gathering Friday to reflect on the past year and discuss plans for next month's observance.

The theme for the October commemoration is "Remember. Repair. Together." Events planned for Sunday, Oct. 27 — exactly one year after the massacre — include a private Jewish service in the morning, doing community service in the city, studying the portion of the Torah that was to be read when the shooting occurred, and a public memorial service in the evening.

"There is no intention to make this an anniversary. Anniversary indicates a happy event. This is not. We will commemorate to remember and repair together," said New Light's co-president, Stephen Cohen.

"Our hearts were torn 11 months ago, and healing does not occur overnight," he said. "Even now, there are family members who cannot even drive by the building — they are in so much pain. We look upon this day as a way to repairing that hurt."

That idea stems from Tikum Olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, said Adam Hertzman, marketing director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, one of several groups helping with Friday's discussion and the one-year commemoration.

Authorities charged Robert Bowers, 47, a truck driver from Baldwin, Pennsylvania, in the attack that killed eight men and three women, and wounded seven others inside Tree of Life synagogue, where congregants from New Light and Dor Hadash also had gathered. Bowers has pleaded not guilty . He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Myers and others also want the commemoration to recognize the outpouring of support that continues from people in Pittsburgh and around the world.

"The community is healing. We will never be healed ... (but) there are people who have found their voices and are engaged in a wide range of activities to promote healing," Myers said.

Businesses in the city's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, home to Tree of Life, still display "Stronger than hate" signs in their windows. A makeshift memorial bearing the 11 victims' names stood outside the synagogue for weeks and drew thousands of visitors.

Hundreds showed up for a public lighting of a Menorah outside the synagogue in December. Blue tarps that once covered a long chain-link fence made way this month for paintings by young people from Pittsburgh and around the globe.

In six weeks, the synagogue received 224 drawings bearing messages of hope, support and perseverance such as "We may face defeat, but we must not be defeated," ''You are not alone" and "Brush away the darkness."

More than half were by students in Parkland, Florida; Littleton, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; and New Zealand, all places that have experienced mass shootings.

The paintings are "a bigger statement than anything else anyone could have done," Cohen said. They "turn the building into a thing of beauty. It changes the focus from the present to the future."

Ellen Surloff, immediate past president of Dor Hadash, finds the drawings inspiring but also "heartbreaking," knowing many of the young artists were affected by mass shootings, too.

The one-year commemoration will focus on the victims and healing, she said, but Surloff also wants "an awareness that the reason we are there speaking on Friday is because a white supremacist who hated immigrants got access to an assault weapon."

Investigators say Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, and that he posted criticism of a Jewish charity on social media prior to the attack, claiming the immigrant aid society "likes to bring invaders that kill our people." Authorities said Bowers also raged against Jews as he gunned down his victims, and told investigators "all these Jews need to die."

"The shooter did not defeat us," Surloff said. "We were a strong community before the shooting and we are a stronger community after the shooting." She added: "It left an indelible mark on ourselves and on our community. But it does not define us. It will never define us."