PITTSBURGH — The funeral of a fifth victim of Saturday’s mass synagogue shooting Joyce Fienberg, 74, took place on Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh’s Beth Shalom congregation.
The service for Fienberg, a member of the Conservative Tree of Life synagogue, was attended by hundreds from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and beyond, and began with words from her congregation’s emeritus rabbi Alvin Berkun.
Fienberg, a life-long educator and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, was praised by Berkun and subsequent speakers as a well-known academic who lectured internationally on her work at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center. In her private life, she was a valued friend, community volunteer, proud mother to sons Anthony and Howard, a devoted grandmother and beloved wife to fellow academic, statistician Dr. Stephen E. Fienberg.
“She brought joy to those she met,” said Berkun. “Joyce was essentially an honest person. She said what she meant and meant what she said.”
Fienberg’s brother Robert Libman said, “My heart hurts. And you’re not here to fix it.”
“My sister was murdered,” he said with a sob.
Quoting his daughter, Libman said, “She was not the type of person who would be the life of the party, but she would be the type of person to give life to the party.”
Libman said, “In the end, a life of pure giving is a life well lived.” He urged the mourners to examine themselves and strive to take up for their own Fienberg’s model of selfless care for the others.
“Sometimes I can’t bear to think of it. Evil tried to shut off the light, but the light refuses to be dimmed even in our broken hearts… Joyce was my sister, but she is your sister too… Her unparalleled goodness lives on,” Libman said.
Fienberg’s son Anthony opened his eulogy and paused, immediately joking that his mother would have been horrified by the grammar of his first sentence.
Anthony spoke of this coming Shabbat’s Bible portion, Chayei Sarah, in which Avraham eulogizes Sarah. Like Abraham leaving for the Land of Israel, Anthony said his mother, a Toronto native, took her destiny in her own hands and made a life for herself and her family in Pittsburgh. Anthony, who today lives with his family in Paris, France, said his mother was never more proud than when speaking of her six grandchildren.
Addressing his mother, Anthony said, “Mom, I hope we live up to your expectations. We miss you terribly but have already begun to build on your legacy.”
Recalling the loss of their father two years ago, Fienberg’s second son Howard said their mother laughed at the idea of moving from Pittsburgh and her tight-knit community in her widowhood.
“Tree of Life became a refuge for her and she became a loyal minyonaire,” he said, using a nickname for those members of the prayer quorum who attend daily.
Howard related that on Saturday morning, upon hearing of the shooting at mother Joyce’s synagogue, he and his family immediately set off from their home in Washington, DC. The family could not reach their mother but initially assumed she had turned off her phone to tend to her friends.
Her gentleness touched your soul in a quiet way like oxygen you didn’t know you needed
“My mom was my mom, and she was your mom too. Her gentleness touched your soul in a quiet way like oxygen you didn’t know you needed,” said Howard. He said that she spent at least an hour every day just reaching out to friends and family, writing long text messages and four-page emails “just for you.”
“My mom would be extremely frustrated and embarrassed to have people fussing after her,” Howard said, envisioning her enjoying the “longest cocktail hour” with his father and grandparents.
Turning somber, he said his mother would have been very angry to have been buried at Beth Shalom and not at her beloved Tree of Life. He invited fellow “minyonaires” to be pall bearers.
A tearful niece said “Auntie Joyce” Fienberg was an honorary grandmother to her children. “Although we always thought she would live forever, we are comforted to know that martyrs are taken straight to heaven,” said the niece.
Rabbi of Tree of Life Jeffrey Myers, who was present during the killings of 11 members of his congregation, sang the traditional mourning prayer “El Maale Rachamim,” in praise of a merciful lord. Before singing, Myers told those present he was adding a phrase in Hebrew “kiddush Hashem,” which honors Fienberg as a martyr who sanctified God’s name.
After the moving funeral, friend Barbara Burstin, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said that while often eulogies don’t quite match the actions of the deceased, in this case the speakers’ loving praise didn’t even scratch Fienberg’s surface.
The shiva will be at the family home and Beth Shalom invites Tree of Life congregants to join its community for the Sabbath prayers.