There almost wasn’t a representative of Diaspora Jewry at this year’s annual Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony. But after an outcry from within Israel and Jewish communities across the globe, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev walked back her decision and reinstated the relatively new tradition — which she herself had started in 2017 — for a Jewish World figure to take part in this central part of the state’s activities to mark its birthday.
Regev tapped Jeff Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, for the honor on Wednesday evening.
It’s one Finkelstein would have gladly done without.
“I wish I didn’t have it. I wish I was never given it,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday in Jerusalem.
“Because the only reason I have it is because 11 people were slaughtered in Pittsburgh. If that didn’t happen, I would not be lighting this torch. So on the one hand I’m honored to be chosen to represent Diaspora Jewry, but I really wish I wasn’t doing this.”
Finkelstein was of course referring to the October 27, 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre, during which white supremacist Robert Gregory Bowers, armed with a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock .357 SIG semi-automatic pistols, stormed a house of worship in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood with the sole purpose of killing Jews.
“I was there when the shooter was still inside and active,” he recalled. “I was listening to the police scanners as they were trying to hunt him down until they cornered him in a piece of the building. And I was there listening to the updates as they were counting the bodies of those of our kedoshim [martyrs] who were killed that day.”
Himself a resident of Squirrel Hill, where most of the city’s 50,000 Jews live (though not a member of the three communities housed in the Tree of Life building), Finkelstein said he still hasn’t really had time to think about the events, which have become notorious as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the US.
“And it’s not business back to normal, it’s a new normal since the shooting, because we’re trying to do everything you need to do to keep a strong Jewish community — and yet we have to help our community heal,” he said.
But as much as he wished he wasn’t invited to Mount Herzl for the prestigious torch-lighting ceremony, he said he was deeply moved by the rehearsal for the ceremony.
“Singing ‘Hatikva’ in the run-through last night with everyone there was really emotional for me,” he said. “With all of the lights and the fireworks going on, and the celebration of Israel’s 71st birthday, that gave me goosebumps.”
A soft-spoken Boston native who has led the Pittsburgh Federation since 2004, Finkelstein was chosen by Regev to represent Diaspora Jewry not only because he has led his community’s efforts to cope and rebuild after last year’s Tree of Life massacre, but also because his organization established a fund for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings last month in New Zealand, where 50 people were killed and over 50 were injured.
“This connection with Jewish roots and emphasis on hope, mutual responsibility and love of humanity has enabled him to lead a unique healing process in Pittsburgh that is a symbol for the entire world,” the Culture Ministry said in a statement last month.
Finkelstein represents the proverbial “the tree of life,” said Regev, “the growing spirit of brotherhood and human togetherness, and the great soul of our Diaspora brothers and sisters.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel in the lobby of his Jerusalem hotel, Finkelstein also discussed the role Israel can play as US Jewry contemplates new ways of securing its communities, as well as the fraught nature of Israel-Diaspora relations in general.
“I don’t think we’re going to rid the world of anti-Semitism. But I do think on the issue of security there is a role for Israel, which is a real leader in technology and data analysis,” he said.
At the same time, Finkelstein cautiously criticized the Israeli government’s policies regarding the Western Wall, conversion to Judaism and the fact that it does not recognize non-Orthodox religious streams.
“We wish the government were much more open to the sense of pluralism that we have in the United States,” he said, adding that he will hint at this during his brief speech on Wednesday evening at the Jewish state’s central Independence Day ceremony.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The Times of Israel: How is the community doing these days?
Jeff Finkelstein: You know, it depends — or as they say in Hebrew, taluy. It’s a big community, and I think about concentric circles of victims. So, the closest to the center are the families of the 11 people who were killed, and also the two people who were injured, that day.
And then you move out from there to the next concentric circle a little further out, which are the people in the building who hid from the shooter.
Then there’s people right outside the building, or people who were on their way to the synagogue at the time, and then there are different orders that you can order them in, but you’ve got members of the three congregations who weren’t going that morning, you’ve got the members of the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, you have Squirrel Hill in general, which is 30 percent Jewish and 70% non-Jewish.
You’ve got the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, not all of which is centered in this neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, and then you have all of Pittsburgh — Jews and non-Jews alike. So it depends. And obviously for the people at the closest to that center, it’s tougher, and there are days that make it tougher.
The shooting in New Zealand, the shooting in Poway, California. Each of those things are triggering moments — and that can be for any level of the victims, but I’m sure it’s more intense for those who were most closely affected.
With all that being said, the community is incredibly resilient. When you drive up and down the main streets in our commercial district in Squirrel Hill, there are signs up and down the street that this is no place for hate, and signs of solidarity for the Jewish community. We’re six months after, and it’s still in all of these storefronts, and I think that people really feel that. So, people have gone on with Jewish life, people have gone on with life, but it’s still there in all of our memories.
You live in Squirrel Hill but are not member of one of the three congregations affected that day, so you’re not at the very core of the circles you described, but you’re relatively close. Would you say that you’re still reeling from the events, or is it more or less back to normal, if that’s possible?
As far as me as “a victim,” being traumatized, when I heard about the shooting that morning I drove to the synagogue to get as close as I could to the building. I was there when the shooter was still inside and active. I was listening to the police scanners as they were trying to hunt him down until they cornered him in a piece of the building. And I was there listening to the updates as they were counting the bodies of those of our kedoshim [martyrs] who were killed that day.
So I’m a little tighter, probably, in the victim class. I have not had time to think about it, and there are moments that affect me deeply.
And it’s not business back to normal, it’s a new normal since the shooting, because we’re trying to do everything you need to do to keep a strong Jewish community — provide strong Jewish education, take care of our seniors, take care of people with special needs, and continue to support the people of Israel and Jews around the world — and yet we have to help our community heal.
So we’re starting to think about one year anniversaries. We did a lot before, but we’re doing much more work around Jewish communal security. So it’s not normal. It’s a new normal, for sure.
Is security a new area for American Jewish communities? Does Israel play any role in this, given that it’s a world leader in security?
I don’t want to say that Israel doesn’t do anything, but we’re focused on security within the American context. There are different laws in America than there are in Israel, and there are a lot of learning from Israel that we do apply to our security, but we’re led in our security efforts — we’re one of now 30 or 40 Jewish communities that have hired Jewish community security directors.
We were the 19th, we hired him [Bradley W. Orsini] two and a half years ago, so he was in place before the shooting took place, and we work with a group called Secure Community Network that’s out of the Jewish Federations of North America, where they provide lots of intel, and training, and coordination among all the security directors.
Can you point at anything specific and say “that’s really changed,” something that’s not at all like it was before?
First of all, the Tree of Life building is still closed. So those three congregations continue to meet, but they don’t meet in the building that they were in. And I think it’s important to remind people: The Tree of Life congregation is the owner of the building, and there were two other congregations that were renting space inside – New Light, which is another Conservative congregation, and Dor Hadash, which is Reconstructionist. So they are all in different places.
By the way, it’s beautiful that two of those congregations are living inside the most classical Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, in Temple Rodef Sholom, and the other congregation, New Light, is meeting at Beth Shalom. Just that whole sense of community coming together to care for one another is really just a beautiful thing.
What’s the timeline of the Tree of Life building reopening?
We don’t know. They don’t know yet. The building’s closed.
So if I were to drive up there right now, what would I see? Are there renovations going on, or forensic police work?
No. The police work is done.
The building is standing empty out of a sense of mourning, or due to bureaucracy?
They just have to figure out what the future is, they’re not sure yet. It’s very fresh for them. Just think about if one of your family members was murdered inside that space, and they have to go through a process to determine what their future is in that building — whether there is a future in that building, whether they do something different, and they’re at the early stages of that, and I respect that they should take their time. So they’re working on it.
I mean no disrespect, but I think in Israel it’s very different — if there is a terror attack in a restaurant in the morning, it will serve lunch there two hours later when everything is cleaned up.
I think that’s totally true. It’s a very different culture in America. And if you look at any of the mass shootings in America, there’s a different reaction, typically. Some of the schools where there have been shootings, the buildings have been torn down. So it’s just a different reaction, a different culture.
Is tearing down the building a real possibility?
I don’t know. It’s not my decision, it’s up to the congregation. I think they’re starting to have those conversations internally with their leadership, but they’re a long way away, I think. They’re not in a rush, and I think that’s a good thing. Because they’re able to be meeting in other locations.
I think it’s really important to remember — the Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash congregations are not the buildings. They are the community of people who make up the congregations.
Regarding your question about how everyday life changed for our community, I will just give you a quick example. Last week we had two community gatherings — one for the victims of Poway. And we lit a candle, and the candle was lit by the sister of the two brothers who were killed at the Tree of Life, and by one of the victims who was shot at Tree of Life. We reached out to the clergy from the three congregations to participate, too.
In other words, there’s a focus on all of them when we do other community events. And it got repeated later in the week when we had our Yom Hashoah community gathering, where the clergy from the three congregations each played major roles within that ceremony, and we lit an additional candle for the 11 victims at the Tree of Life. So it seeps into so much of what we do.
When I go to my synagogue on Shabbat, and they say kaddish and announce all of the yahrzeits for the week, they also announce the 11 people who were killed at Tree of Life, they are going to do this for the full year. So it seeps in everywhere in the community in things we’re doing. As I said there’s signage — they still have a sign up in one of the Jewish bookstores’ window with the names of the 11 victims, it’s right up there.
So it’s still a big part of our lives, and I think that there are two areas, especially, where we’re focused. One I mentioned before, is security, and our security director has been in place for over two years. Many organizations used his services prior to October 27, but not all, and now he’s in heavy demand. Everyone wants to know what the right procedures are, what they need to do to harden their facilities, et cetera. It’s a good thing that they’re paying attention to it.
And the other thing is just around mental health. So I mentioned that we had a community gathering for Poway. Right before I closed it, we had the CEO of our Jewish family and community services talk about mental health. That this can be a triggering event. That you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable calling, and here’s the phone number. If you need help, we want to be here for you.
That’s stuff that we wouldn’t have done in the past, but we need to now. We need to take into account that there are people that are going to be affected by different moments.
What about Israel’s response to that tragedy? The government sent Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett to Pittsburgh; and some people were critical of that decision, saying that he’s not necessarily the right person for that. How did you feel about the Israeli government’s response to the attack?
The Israeli government chose Naftali Bennett to be the representative of the State of Israel, and we were really pleased that he was there to represent the government and the people of Israel.
In addition, in that vigil that the Federation put together on October 28, we had a video message from President [Reuven] Rivlin, as well. So Israel was prominent in that. We sang the national anthem and we sang “Hatikva” there, because we are proud of our connection to Israel and to the Jewish people worldwide. I think there was a huge outpouring of support from Israel.
We, through the Partnership Together program of the Jewish Agency, have been connected with the communities of Karmiel and Misgav, and they had residents produce a video of them singing “Yachad” [Together], and I cried. I lost it. It was beautiful.
This was our family in Israel — they reached out to us on a really personal level. Plus all the emails and texts and everything we got from our partners there. On the real helping front, the Jewish Agency helped to bring in the Israel Trauma Coalition to Pittsburgh. I think they were there a day after the shooting took place. They were incredible.
Unfortunately, they have way too much experience. But they were able to bring that experience and assist professionals in our community on how to deal with this trauma that none of us really had been trained on. And then, just more recently, the Jewish Agency and our Federation split the cost to bring the Israel Trauma Coalition in for another week of work in the community. So Israel is playing a prominent role in helping our community to heal.
How did you feel when you got the phone call telling you were chosen to be given the honor of lighting a torch at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony?
I wish I didn’t have it. I wish I was never given it. Because the only reason I have it is because 11 people were slaughtered in Pittsburgh. If that didn’t happen, I would not be lighting this torch. So on the one hand I’m honored to be chosen to represent Diaspora Jewry, but I really wish I wasn’t doing this.
Who called you, where were you? What was your first reaction?
[Culture Minister] Miri Regev was the one who called me. I had a phone call before giving me the heads up making sure I’d be available for the phone call and they told me what it was, but Miri had the official phone call. And I’d heard a rumor that I’d been nominated for this, so I didn’t know I’d be chosen, but I’d heard I’d been nominated.
You know, I’ve had a lot of neat experiences in my career. I’ve met presidents of the United States, and been in the White House, and lots of things like that, and so, frankly, these kinds of moments are not the things that drive me.
So I’m honored to do it, but I wasn’t feeling like, “This is the coolest thing ever.” It’s an honor, it’s a privilege to represent, but it’s not about me. I don’t think any of this is about me, per se. This is about the people of Pittsburgh, it’s about the victims, and so I’m merely an easy representative as the head of the Jewish Federation.
Which was more meaningful to you: lighting a candle at the Independence Day ceremony for the Jewish state, or being in the Oval Office with the president?
They were both awesome experiences in their own rights. The first time I went to the White House was when George W. Bush was president, and I went to the White House Hanukkah party. And that was really neat. And I thought about the fact that my grandparents left Europe with little education and now their grandson was at the White House meeting the president.
But lighting the torch itself, it was wonderful to stand in front of the crowd and do so — but singing “Hatikva” in the run-through last night with everyone there was really emotional for me. With all of the lights and the fireworks going on, and the celebration of Israel’s 71st birthday, that gave me goosebumps.
Initially, Minister Regev decided that this year there shouldn’t be a Diaspora torch in general, and she only reinstated it after she was literally begged by people. How did you feel when you heard about her plan to cancel world Jewry’s participation in this ceremony, which he had taken after 11 Jews had been slaughtered in your hometown.
Well, I think those were separate things. I don’t think she decided to not have a torch lit by Diaspora Jewry because 11 people were killed.
Obviously, but she made it in spite of Diaspora Jewry being in unprecedented turmoil.
Look, our national system, the Jewish Federations of North America, along with the Jewish Agency for Israel, wrote a letter to Miri Regev, asking for the decision to be reversed. So I think that as a Jewish Federation we stood by what was in that letter.
Did the relationship between the Pittsburgh Jewish community and Israel change in the wake of the events?
It was very strong. And if it changed, it was only for the better, not for worse. But I don’t think it’s changed. I think it’s still just a solid relationship.
How do you feel about the Israeli government’s approach to the Diaspora concerning conversions, acceptance of non-Orthodox streams, and on on?
We wish the government were much more open to the sense of pluralism that we have in the United States. We are a very diverse Jewish community in America with these very strong streams of Judaism that exist, and the people in those streams make up our donors. And reflecting on them, they are pained when things happen like the changing of the Kotel [Western Wall] compromise that had been worked out, and the conversion bill that was put in place.
So those things are not positive to the relationship between American Jewry and Israel. And I see glimmers of light, and I hope things are getting better, but…
Can you share with me what those are? Because I see things getting worse.
Maybe you can tell me if I’m wrong — I think there’s some work starting at the Kotel?
There’s physical work being done [on the pluralistic prayer platform], but the government is only implementing the parts of the Western Wall agreement that they always said they would implement. But it’s the more substantial parts of the agreement that remain still frozen. And our incoming government is going to be more ultra-Orthodox, so I don’t see things developing in a good direction.
That would be a very serious issue for Diaspora Jewry, if that comes into play. Not about the government – but about the policies of the government. I mean, Israel has its own political system and elects its governments in the way it does, but it doesn’t mean we have to agree with those policies.
Are you going to use your participation in the Independence Day ceremony to call attention to this?
I have a short speech to give, so I have my chance with media to talk to other people. But even in my speech I do talk about all the streams of Judaism, so when you hear my speech, you’ll hear it.
The State of Israel said that it wants to play a part in fighting global anti-Semitism, especially in the wake of all the recent violence. What role would you like to see them play?
I think when we say anti-Semitism, it’s a very broad area. There’s the anti-Semitism from the right, the white nationalists, which is the people who attacked our synagogue in Pittsburgh and who’ve now attacked the synagogue in Poway.
And then there’s anti-Semitism of the very far left, some of that coming out through anti-Israel activities. So I think there’s different strategies for each, but I also think there’s different underlying reasons. And I do not claim to be an expert in anti-Semitism. But I think there are a lot of things that are happening.
Some people talk about the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Other people talk about the fact that in some parts of the United States or Europe, people don’t even understand Judaism. You look at some of the polls, the research done, and huge numbers of people don’t even know about the Holocaust.
We’ve just got a lack of knowledge out there, too. So my question for the State of Israel would be, is there a strategic place that it would make sense for the State of Israel, or for Israelis, to play a role where they really add value? I don’t know the answer on those things yet, but those would be the questions I’d have.
Many people are worried about the communities between Israel and the US. Where do you see Israel and US Jewry in 20 years from now?
If you ask people in my office, they’ll tell you I usually don’t like strategic plans that go for five years because I think the world changes too quickly. So 20 years is like a lifetime away. So it’s really hard.
But I think what we should do is not allow things to happen that will lead us to a negative place in 20 years. We have to do the things now that will make the reality that we’d like to get to. One of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed are the people-to-people connections we’re able to make between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora.
So whatever government policies are, we need to make sure that the people know each other, have relationships with each other, and care about one another. So I know it doesn’t sound so scientific, but I’ve seen it work. Those are the kinds of things that I think break down the barriers and will only help for the future.
Yaakov Schwartz and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.