Harriet Singer went to synagogue services at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh to mark the anniversary of her father’s death in August.
On the way out, she started chatting with a woman named Joyce Fienberg, who told Singer that she was just getting involved in the synagogue again, after years of spending little time there. “We talked about perhaps seeing each other at the High Holidays services,” Singer said.
Two months later, Singer heard Fienberg’s name listed on the television news as among the eleven victims of the Tree of Life Congregation massacre.
“It’s all sinking in right now,” Singer said on Sunday, as she began to cry. “I was married in that synagogue and I was confirmed from that synagogue as a teenager and you know it’s just so hard to realize that such brutality took place there.”
Fienberg was 75 years old, the widow of a distinguished and influential statistic professor at Carnegie Mellon University who died in 2016.
When her husband was alive, Fienberg was an irregular visitor to the Tree of Life Congregation. But after his death, she threw herself into the life of the synagogue.
“She spent every day, or close to it, at synagogue since she lost her husband,” said Jennifer March, executive director of Family House, a nonprofit where Fienberg volunteered.
She was killed at the synagogue on October 27, among the victims in the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
“She was a real lady,” Samet said. “She completely dedicated her life to the synagogue since her husband died.”
Her daughter-in-law, Marnie Fienberg, said that Joyce made friends wherever she went. “We are getting calls and emails from around the world, saying, I feel like I lost my best friend ad I haven’t seen her in in 20 years,” Marnie Fienberg said.
Born in Toronto, Joyce Fienberg became an American citizen a number of years ago. She brought up her two sons, Anthony and Howard, in Pittsburgh; she had six grandchildren.
“She loved everyone at the synagogue,” Marnie Fienberg said.”She felt that was her second family.”
Christopher Genovese, the head of the Statistics & Data Science department at Carnegie Mellon, where Fienberg’s late husband Stephen Fienberg taught, last saw Joyce on Friday, when she attended the installation of the university’s new president. “Joyce always took an interest in helping people who needed help,” Genovese said. “Joyce was always very calm, very kind and warm.”
Genovese said that she had remained involved in the life of the department after the death of her husband. She chatted with Genovese’s wife at the installation ceremony on Friday, just a day before the massacre.
“In my interactions with her over many years, she was always looking out to how people were doing,” Genovese said.
Fienberg also spent time volunteering at Family House, a nonprofit that provides a place to stay for people traveling to the Pittsburgh area for medical care. Fienberg’s role was to help guests get comfortable in an unfamiliar city, March said. She was known around the nonprofit for her sense of humor.
“We’re going to embrace each other a lot in the next few days,” March said.
With Aiden Pink.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.
Joyce Fienberg Went To Pittsburgh Synagogue Every Day