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One Year After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting, Residents Do The Hard Work Of Healing

Gene J. Puskar
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers watches the installation of a menorah outside the Tree of Life Synagogue before holding a celebration on the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

It’s been nearly a year since the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, and life continues in Squirrel Hill.

The shooting took place during Saturday morning services and is the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. In its wake, beautiful handmade gifts began to arrive in Pittsburgh, sent by people from across the country, an expression of sympathy and support.

Credit Tree of Life or L'Simcha
A Tree of Life created from a steel drum, made by the ONA Mission, and donated by the Dominican Sisters of Houston, Texas.

“This just came in this week. It is a knitted blanket with a fabric border,” said Barb Feige, executive director of Tree of Life, Or L'Simcha, opening a recently arrived package. "The border is embroidered with the words, ‘We See You, And We Love You.’”

Tree of Life is one of the three congregations that lost members last October. Feige was hired by the congregation in July, and since then she’s been working out of Rodef Shalom, another local conservative synagogue.

The Tree of Life building has been closed since the attack, but there are plans to reopen after renovations.

One of Feige's first tasks as executive director was to catalogue the items. They number over 1,000 and include artistic renderings of trees, prayer shawls, paper cranes, candles, stuffed animals, painted ceramic hearts.

“I have to tell you, when I moved into the office that we’re sitting in now, there was a huge pile [of gifts],” she said. “I’m not wishy-washy, touchy-feeling kind of person at all, anybody will tell you that, but there was something coming off those objects that was just full of love and healing.”

Most of the objects are at the Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish Achieve, being catalogued and photographed. Eventually items will be distributed to survivors, victims’ families and members of the congregations.

Credit Tree of Life or L'Simcha
Eleven handmade roses fashioned from the obituaries of the eleven people who were killed. Artist is Jane Bodnar of Mount Lebanon.

Though it’s been almost a year since the attack, Feige said that every couple weeks the congregation receives another package, which is fitting.

“Healing isn’t linear,” she said. “It doesn’t have a deadline, and you may never heal. But you’re always healing.”

Multiple studies show the psychological effects of violence can be long lasting, especially if a person lacks adequate social and psychological support.

“When we experience trauma, the whole self experiences that,” said mindfulness coach Amy Lohr, who leads a weekly trauma resiliency group at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

Lohr, who has a background in psychotherapy, explained that when someone doesn’t deal with a traumatic experience, it haunts them. Which is why, for many people in the resiliency group, last year’s attack not only created new pain but exposed older wounds, some inflicted as far back as childhood.

Credit Tree of Life or L'Simcha
Tree enclosed by metal Star of David, crafted and donated by George Lampman. The names of the 11 people who were killed are written on the arms of the star.

“It ends up feeling reminiscent to anytime in life that we feel out of control, or powerless,” she said.

Lohr said many people might start feeling depressed or agitated as the attack’s one-year mark approaches. That’s even if they’ve recently been feeling better.

“The experience of trauma is with the senses, so those seasonal shifts can really pull up some of that stuff,” she said. “That’s really the body remembering.”

Trauma is alienating and isolating, and to combat this, said Lohr, it’s important to cultivate relationships and community.

"Trauma happens in connection with others, and therefore healing happens in connections with others," Lohr said.

This seems to be something that's instinctively understood, considering how other faith communities have reached out.

The three congregations have formed a relationship with Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S. C., which was attacked by a white supremacist gunman in 2015. 

Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside offered its building to the Tree of Life congregation for High Holiday services. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, along with other American Muslim organizations, raised more than $238,000, to support victims' families and foster Jewish-Muslim solidarity.

And in March, when 49 worshipers were killed at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tree of Life and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh raised money in support of that community.

Down the hall from where Lohr's resiliency group meets, JCC staff enjoy a weekly lunch, catered by big Burrito Restaurant Group.

After the attack, area organizations and community members brought food to the community center. As a nexus of the city's Jewish community, the JCC continues to play a key role in the attack's aftermath. 

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
JCC staff eating lunch. The big Burrito Restaurant Group has been providing a weekly catered meal to employees of the community center since the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

One October day, members enjoyed an Asian fusion meal, made up of fried rice, spicy noodles, and avacado and mango salad.

Kelly Hont, who works in membership, sales and development at the JCC, said she looks forward to this meal because it allows her to spend time with coworkers she doesn’t normally see.

“That’s my favorite part,” she said. “A lot of families do family dinner once a week, so we do our little family lunch once a week.”

Everyone eating at the large conference room table echoed Hont’s comments. The catered meal is great, but what they really appreciate is the camaraderie with their 200-some colleagues.

One year is not enough time to recover, but judging by the happy lunchtime conversation, Pittsburgh is making progress.