Pitts­burgh tries to heal

Res­i­dents gather for prayer and wor­ship af­ter Tree of Life slay­ings

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MO­RIAH BALINGIT AND KEL­LIE GORMLY mo­riah.balingit@wash­post.com Kayla Ep­stein con­trib­uted to this re­port.

pitts­burgh — They gath­ered in the shut­tered street Fri­day, just as the sun be­gan dip­ping to­ward the hori­zon. Men and women, in the shadow of the im­pos­ing con­crete fa­cade of Tree of Life, stood be­yond the yel­low po­lice tape that still sur­rounds the build­ing.

Here, un­der­neath a stop­light and amid the din of traf­fic, they turned to the east — to­ward Is­rael — and be­gan their prayers.

This group wanted to en­sure that these evening prayers, which marked the start of Shab­bat, con­tin­ued at Tree of Life, even if the blood­stained sanc­tu­ary re­mains a crime scene, a place where 11 peo­ple seek­ing the so­lace of morn­ing ser­vices had in­stead met their deaths.

“When you went to the fu­ner­als, you heard how ded­i­cated they were to Shab­bat,” said Sam Wein­berg, prin­ci­pal of the Hil­lel Acad­emy of Pitts­burgh. He reached out to his stu­dents to gather here for Shab­bat prayers, and many of them came, some don­ning yarmulkes in Steelers black and gold.

“It would have been a shame not to have them here,” he said.

Across the city on Fri­day night, the rit­ual re­peated it­self in homes and in syn­a­gogues.

It has been a week since a man burst into this syn­a­gogue in the heart of the his­toric Jewish neigh­bor­hood of Squir­rel Hill, killing some of the most ded­i­cated con­gre­gants and shak­ing the sense of se­cu­rity for Jews wor­ship­ing across the coun­try. But even as Tree of Life re­mained cor­doned off, and even as vic­tims re­mained in the hospi­tal, peo­ple lit Shab­bat can­dles, prayed, shared food and at­tempted to re­claim a sense of peace.

About a mile away, at the home of 69-year-old Myr­iam Gumer­man, an eclec­tic crowd gath­ered to ob­serve Shab­bat. There was her friend Elkhaili Ou­mal­lal, a 35-year-old com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dent and trans­la­tor, whom she had be­friended as a pas­sen­ger in his Uber. Ou­mal­lal is Mus­lim and Gumer­man is Jewish, but both were raised in Morocco.

Then there were her neigh­bors: a Jewish cou­ple from Am­s­ter­dam and a Chris­tian cou­ple — Anne Cur­tis and Tim Clark — who has lived in the neigh­bor­hood for more than four decades.

For Cur­tis, the din­ner was an ex­ten­sion of the Pitts­burgh con­cept of “nebby,” lo­cal slang that means “nosy,” but also con­veys a sense of con­cern for neigh­bors. In the days since the shoot­ing, she has been call­ing and tex­ting neigh­bors to en­sure they were safe.

“The core is we take care of each other,” Cur­tis said.

Gumer­man be­gan Shab­bat by light­ing a dozen yahrzeit can­dles, one for each of the vic­tims and a 12th for those who were still in the hospi­tal. The can­dles are nor­mally lit on the an­niver­sary of the death of loved ones, but Gumer­man wanted a way to com­mem­o­rate the vic­tims this past week.

If the shoot­ing was in­tended to frighten wor­shipers away from ser­vices, it ap­peared to have the op­po­site ef­fect: Peo­ple crammed the seats in the sanc­tu­ary of Beth Shalom for ser­vices Fri­day night and Satur­day morn­ing. The syn­a­gogue sits less than a mile up the road from Tree of Life, and it has taken in peo­ple from all three con­gre­ga­tions that held ser­vices there.

They in­cluded con­gre­gants who rarely at­tend ser­vices and non-Jews, who an­swered the call from their own faith com­mu­ni­ties to at­tend ser­vices in sol­i­dar­ity of Jewish Pitts­burghers.

“Tonight, I re­ally want to keep my mouth shut,” Rabbi Jonathan Perl­man of New Light, one of the con­gre­ga­tions that held ser­vices at Tree of Life, told the con­gre­gants Fri­day night. “Be­cause there are no words.”

In­stead, the rabbi in­vited them to come to the front of the sanc­tu­ary to share their fa­vorite mem­o­ries of the vic­tims and of­fer words of strength. One man said he dressed up in mem­ory of vic­tim Melvin Wax, who was known for dress­ing for­mally even for ca­sual ser­vices. They re­called his fond­ness of telling jokes and his acu­men with He­brew.

Satur­day morn­ing, Pitts­burghers gath­ered there and out­side of Tree of Life, where they held ser­vices de­spite a chilly driz­zle. Shortly be­fore 10 a.m., the tear­ful crowd — Red Cross vol­un­teers were on hand dis­tribut­ing tis­sues — held a mo­ment of si­lence to mark the week an­niver­sary of the first call to 911, made by a rabbi hid­ing in the choir loft.

At Beth Shalom, the sound of weep­ing could be heard dur­ing ser­vices. There were prayers for the dead, the wounded and the phys­i­cally un­scathed — those who may have es­caped the gun­fire in­side the build­ing or reg­u­lars who hap­pened to not be there that morn­ing.

While con­gre­gants prayed to God, they also ap­pealed to politi­cians to strengthen gun con­trol laws.

“Our the­ol­ogy is that God cre­ated hu­mans with free will. Hu­mans can choose to do good or evil,” said Beth Kis­sileff, the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Perl­man, dur­ing an emo­tional speech.

“Our job is to make sure that those who choose to do evil don’t have ac­cess to as­sault ri­fles,” Kis­sileff said, prompt­ing rous­ing ap­plause from the au­di­ence.

Con­gre­gants said the Rabbi Jeffrey My­ers also ad­dressed his con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion to meet with Pres­i­dent Trump when he vis­ited the syn­a­gogue, say­ing that he wanted to fight hate with kind­ness and open­ness. He said he con­veyed his con­cern about the ef­fect of Trump’s rhetoric di­rectly to him.

For many who came, the ser­vices were a source of com­fort and strength, but also deep grief.

Jean Rosen­thal, 90, was typ­i­cally the sec­ond per­son to ar­rive at Tree of Life for Satur­day ser­vices, but she felt ill last week­end and de­cided to skip. She said the out­pour­ing of sup­port from all cor­ners of the com­mu­nity — from refugees and Mus­lims and strangers — was uplift­ing. But her heart ached over the loss of her friends. Ser­vices, she said “was tor­ture” — and she said she did not ex­pect to see an­tipa­thy to­ward Jews end be­fore her death.

“Every­body has been so good,” Rosen­thal said. “But anti-Semitism will never die.”

From the back seat of her daugh­ter’s car af­ter ser­vices, she peered through the wind­shield at the sky.

“It’s Satur­day. The sun is shin­ing through. That’s hope,” Rosen­thal said half­heart­edly. Then her voice grew softer: “I wish we could go back in time and just erase it.”

“Our the­ol­ogy is that God cre­ated hu­mans with free will. Hu­mans can choose to do good or evil. Our job is to make sure that those who choose to do evil don’t have ac­cess to as­sault ri­fles.”

Beth Kis­sileff, wife of Rabbi Jonathan Perl­man


Justin Gar­gis, 37, prays at a me­mo­rial in front of Tree of Life syn­a­gogue on the week an­niver­sary of the shoot­ing that left 11 peo­ple dead on Oct. 27.

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