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The second Tree of Life shooting commemoration will bring people together in an age of separation

A global pandemic isn’t keeping the Pittsburgh Jewish community from coming together for a virtual commemoration to honor the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre.

The event on Oct. 27 marks two years since the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania claimed the lives of 11 people, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

All three congregations who worshipped at Tree of Life Synagogue — Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation— lost members in the massacre.

People paying respects for the victims of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting

People pay their respects at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting left 11 people dead. Image by Getty Images

The virtual event, which will be accessible to anyone with a WiFi connection, was organized by survivors, families of victims, and the three congregations, in collaboration with the 10.27 Healing Partnership, an organization created to aid in the Tree of Life and Pittsburgh Jewish communities’ healing process in the aftermath of the shooting.

“We’re doing it 100% virtually because we didn’t want to have to limit the number of people who could attend,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership. “The idea is that we can open it up to a broader community than we would if it were an in-person gathering, and allow the space for anyone who wants to show support and solidarity and maybe be together in prayer.”

During the commemoration, clergy from all three congregations will recite traditional prayers meant to bring communal comfort, and families and congregation members will light yahrzeit candles and offer remembrances through pre-recorded videos.

“We wanted to get rid of the idea of performance on the day of the commemoration,” Feinstein said. “‘What if my connection isn’t working? What if I forget to say this, or what if I disconnect? Removing the stress of technology became really important.”

The virtual aspect of the event also relieved some of the pressure family members experienced during last year’s in-person event. Howard Fienberg, 47, whose mother, Joyce Fienberg, 75, lost her life in the shooting, said that the simplicity of an online commemoration has its advantages.

Public gathering memorial service on Oct. 27, 2019 one year after the Tree of Life shooting.

Public gathering memorial service on Oct. 27, 2019 one year after the Tree of Life shooting. Image by Jeff Swensen/ Getty Images

“Last year I was just so distracted on the day of the commemoration— I even missed a Torah study I wanted to go to,” Fienberg said. “This year my wife and I just sat at the table with my phone and recorded a short video to honor my mother.”

Fienberg said that this way of doing things feels appropriate, since the commemoration held on the English calendar date, October 27, is much more public-facing, versus the yahrzeit date, November 5, which to him, the other families, and the congregations, is more personal.

However, Fienberg is grateful that anyone who wants to will be able to participate in the commemoration, especially since his mother, Joyce, he said, had friends all over the world.

“Remembering her is how I keep her soul alive, and I want to share that with people whenever I have the opportunity,” Fienberg said. “And I appreciate that aspect of the commemoration— it’s trying to maintain a sense of who these people were, so they can never be completely gone.”

In addition to messages from the families and congregations, the ceremony will feature a musical tribute from world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a performance by the contemporary Jewish singer Elana Arian.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald will recite “A Prayer for Our Country,” a prayer usually recited at the end of the Torah service.

While the three congregations will all participate in the virtual commemoration and hold a joint minyan on the yahrzeit date, they are also individually honoring the lost lives of their congregants in their own ways.

“Every single day, the question you have to ask is, what do we do now? What do we do to move the Jewish community here in Pittsburgh forward?” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of the New Light Congregation. How do we deal with COVID-19, and ensure that we can honor, remember, and reflect on what happened?”

Cohen said the New Light Congregation will unveil a new memorial board dedicated to the three congregants killed in the shooting, as well as erect a monument in New Light’s private cemetery.

“We’re hoping that by commemorating these things on the two-year mark, that we can begin to continue on that very, very long road towards healing. And begin to put the event into context and move on with life,” Cohen said.

Other events, both online and in-person, are scheduled to help support the Tree of Life Synagogue congregations and wider Pittsburgh Jewish community during the two-year mark period.

10.27 Healing Partnership “Canopy Conversations” tent Image by 10.27 Healing Partnership Facebook

All day on October 27, The 10.27 Healing Partnership is holding “Canopy Conversations,” which aims to give community members a COVID-19-safe way to engage in healing discussions and services in a physical space. For those who prefer to stay home, the group is offering drop-in one-on-one counseling sessions with local volunteer therapists via “The Healing Zoom Room.” The JCC will also host a virtual Torah study, among other events.

While the Pittsburgh Jewish community grieves and commemorates from home this year, conversations about when and how to open the Tree of Life Synagogue building continue.

Tree of Life Congregation announced “REMEMBER. REBUILD. RENEW.,” a fundraising effort to support the reestablishment of the Tree of Life building, earlier this year. The campaign hopes to create a space that is “flexible and collaborative, evolving to meet our community’s needs for generations to come and inviting new people in through formal partnerships and educational programs,” according to a statement on their website.

While no plans have been solidified, Chatham University and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh have both expressed interest in using the space for education and community purposes.

But despite Tree of Life’s closed doors— and a global pandemic keeping so many communities apart— the people have found a way to come together when they need each other most.

“We won’t be gathered in a building with 2,000 people, but a new sense of community and intimacy has really emerged,” Feinstein said. “While we’re watching and listening from our living rooms, we’re choosing to make the space in our own homes to remember together.”

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