Mere hours after a 46-year-old anti-Semitic truck driver stormed Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and shot and killed 11 Jews on Saturday, the reeling Jewish leadership set aside their personal grief and met together to begin planning for their community’s tomorrow.
On Thursday, five days later, Jeffrey H. Finkelstein, President & CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told a video conference set up by the Jewish Funders Network: “We haven’t had time to mourn and grieve yet — I’ve cried a bunch of times — but we need to get through this for the community.”
In giving a debriefing of the situation of the Jewish community and its current needs, Finkelstein was joined by Dr. Jordan Golin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Family and Community Services, and Brian Schreiber, President and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, which has become both war room and center for healing in the past week.
In the first hours after the massacre, the JCC became the waiting room for Tree of Life congregants and families of the “missing” 11 members, the FBI, American Red Cross and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Crisis Team.
The three leaders have been working endlessly and sleeping little since the 20-minute rampage at a quiet Squirrel Hill synagogue that changed the face of Pittsburgh’s Jewry forever. According to Finkelstein, the FBI and local security officials said it was “the most horrific scene they’ve ever seen in their lives.”
It is of utmost importance to remember, said Finkelstein, that during morning prayer services, “11 Jews were slaughtered that day for being Jews.”
Even as the families awaited final confirmation from the FBI of their loved ones’ deaths, at Saturday’s meeting, the leaders divided up the grim tasks looming ahead. Bringing in their lay leadership, it was decided that the Jewish Family and Community Services would tend to the immediate physical and mental needs of the community, the JCC would serve as epicenter for operations and volunteer support, and the federation would deal with press inquiries, fundraising, and advocacy.
A security debriefing was immediately scheduled for Sunday. “This is a moment of sitting together, thinking about those who’ve left us, our community and about gaining strength as we move forward,” the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reported that Federation board chair Meryl Ainsman said at the meeting.
The seamless partnership between the different Jewish organizations is the fruit of decades of close cooperation, the panelists said in Thursday’s panel discussion said, and provides the ability to plan together — and plan ahead.
Known as Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, this neighborhood of Pittsburgh is “an urban shtetl,” said the Jewish Community Center’s Schreiber. The majority of the Jewish community lives in Squirrel Hill or the adjacent neighborhoods and the JCC is at the physical epicenter.
“It is a community of deep relationships: all the organizations work well together on a day to day basis,” he said, adding that in crisis, they work “extremely well” together.
On January 25, 2018, the JCC had served as the testing grounds for first responders during an active threat drill. Working closely with the police, fire department, and paramedics, the community center allowed the first responders to learn how to go into a “warm zone” — a crime scene in which the shooter had stopped shooting, but was not yet apprehended.
“This actually played out,” said Brian Schreiber, President and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. On Saturday, paramedics were able to come into the Tree of Life Synagogue before suspected shooter Robert Bowers was taken into custody after killing 11 and wounding others, including four police officers.
Schreiber said that the drill potentially limited casualties.
“Our rabbi, who is shomer shabbos [observes the laws of Shabbat], since that drill he always had a phone,” he said. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was one of the first 911 callers. Other members of the community were saved by remembering the motto: “Run, hide, fight,” Schreiber said.
“You must drill; you cannot get there unless you drill,” said Schreiber.
A close cooperation between Jewish Family and Community Services and the city’s day schools was also essential in the aftermath of the shooting. Golin said that since clinicians have already been visiting the schools for years, the pupils “already knew and trusted” the staff. So when they came to speak with the children, it was from a place of trust.
Not all offers of help are accepted and the burden volunteers, with even the best of intentions, place on the community cannot be disregarded.
However, Golin said he was extremely grateful for the expert support from the Israel Trauma Coalition, which provided “invaluable” guidance to teachers and clinicians. Whereas Israelis are accustomed to dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks, said Golin, the “intricacies of responding to the situation is not something we have experience with. The emotional challenges will not go away in the next few weeks or months.”
One of the issues facing the community is “survivor’s guilt,” said Golin. “We’re a Jewish organization, so we expect guilt,” he said ironically. Several of those who escaped the shooter, as well as synagogue members who did not attend, feel guilt at the deaths of their friends. The entire community, he said, will “need forgiveness and patience.
Finkelstein, who has worked in Jewish Federations for the past 20 years, said the outpouring of support from throughout the community has been incredible.
“I’ve never hugged more people than I have since Saturday. This week, it’s hugs everywhere,” he said, naming a number of local businesses that have stepped up and offered their assistance, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, the city’s hockey team, which had special jerseys created by modifying the team symbol into a star of David, which will be auctioned off with proceeds to be donated to the Jewish community and police.
Even as four wounded officers recuperate from the gun battle with the shooting suspect, Robert Bowers, the police, said Finkelstein, have been instrumental in ensuring the physical safety of the community during these days of funerals — as well as its peace of mind.
However, funding extra security on an ongoing basis, as well as ongoing psychological care, carry a hefty price tag.
It is important to stress, said Finkelstein, that “there are no threats against our community.” At the same time, “a lot of people want to feel safe,” which means increased security.
Going forward, the community will also need more psychological counseling, “not just for families, for lots of people in the community,” said Finkelstein.
There is already a fund set up for donations for the victims of terror and Finkelstein said he intends to consult with successful fund management teams to leverage the donations to be able to more fully aid the victims.
Funds are pouring in: On Thursday, the Weinberg Foundation pledged $1.2 million to the Pittsburgh community.
“The Weinberg Foundation stands in solidarity with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community,” said Rachel Garbow Monroe, Weinberg Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer.
“We know Pittsburgh will lead the way in overcoming hatred and darkness by strengthening a community that is built on respect, diversity, and love for all of its neighbors,” said Garbow Monroe.
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