Shoot­ing vic­tims reach out to help

How Pitts­burgh is reach­ing out to com­fort El Paso, Day­ton

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Karen HELLER

A vigil would help. Yael Perl­man would go to one Thurs­day evening. First, she needed to do some­thing im­me­di­ate and per­sonal for the vic­tims of El Paso, Texas, and Day­ton, Ohio, and Gil­roy, Calif.

Write let­ters to the fam­i­lies of the mur­dered. That’s what she could do.

She thought about when her syn­a­gogue was at­tacked about 10 months ago.

A Satur­day morn­ing, be­fore ser­vices, by a shooter spew­ing anti-Semitic state­ments, killing 11 and wound­ing six. In the days im­me­di­ately af­ter, Yael re­ceived a cache of hand­writ­ten let­ters from peo­ple who lost loved ones in other at­tacks, in­clud­ing 9/11, let­ters she trea­sures and dis­played on the fire­place man­tel for months.

So ear­lier this week, Yael, 18, gathered bi­ogra­phies of the vic­tims and used so­cial me­dia to or­ga­nize a let­ter-writ­ing event. She put out a plate of grapes. Vol­un­teers ar­rived Tues­day night, 46 in all, pens ready. On the first floor of her con­gre­ga­tion’s new home, fold­ing cafe­te­ria ta­bles were des­ig­nated by city. Day­ton here. El Paso over there.

“Con­ver­sa­tion about the shoot­ing here comes up ev­ery day,” Yael says.

“Grief doesn’t work on a dead­line,” says her mother, Beth Kis­sileff.

Pitts­burgh be­longs to a club it never wanted to join, the sites of car­nage caused by semi­au­to­matic mil­i­tary-style weapons and hate. As the mass shoot­ings pro­lif­er­ate, through Aurora, New­town, Park­land and Orlando, these com­mu­ni­ties com­pose a loose net­work of trauma. Af­ter each mas­sacre, sur­vivors across the coun­try of­fer mes­sages of em­pa­thy to the lat­est com­mu­nity af­fected – while cop­ing with a new surge of sor­row at home.

Most peo­ple in Pitts­burgh can cite the date of its shoot­ing, es­pe­cially in the Jewish com­mu­nity of Squir­rel Hill, home to a dozen syn­a­gogues in less than three square miles.

“Our par­ents would say ‘Where were you when JFK was shot or on 9/11?’” says Si­galle Ba­hary, 20. “In Pitts­burgh, it’s be­come the same thing. Where were you on Oc­to­ber 27?”

Af­ter the murders at Tree of Life syn­a­gogue, which also housed New Light and Dor Hadash con­gre­ga­tions, the res­i­dents of New­town, Conn., sub­si­dized cof­fee for two weeks at Com­mon­place Cof­fee. There were con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple from Park­land, Fla.

A dozen mem­bers of the Que­bec City Is­lamic Cul­tural Cen­ter mosque, the site of a 2017 at­tack, made the 12-hour drive to of­fer so­lace.

To ob­serve Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth­day, an in­ter­faith Pitts­burgh group trav­eled to Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church, where nine African Amer­i­cans were mur­dered in 2015 by a white su­prem­a­cist. At the end of the ser­vice, they were en­veloped in a mas­sive group hug from par­ish­ioners. Peo­ple of Pitts­burgh, par­tic­u­larly sensitive to car­nage re­lated to faith, reached out to res­i­dents of Christchur­ch af­ter 51 peo­ple were mas­sa­cred at two New Zealand mosques in March.

We live in a time of con­stant vig­ils staged in cen­tral squares and on church steps.

On Wed­nes­day, Pitts­burgh’s Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter held a ban­ner sign­ing to honor the res­i­dents of El Paso, Day­ton and this city’s Lat­inx com­mu­nity. Wishes were inked with sil­ver Sharpies in the cen­ter’s cen­tral hall, which was dec­o­rated with pho­tos of Pitts­burgh’s paragon of kind­ness, Fred Rogers.

The cen­tre held a sim­i­lar sign­ing af­ter the mass shoot­ing in Vir­ginia Beach, which left 12 dead and four wounded. That was nine weeks ago.

The JCC is the hub of the com­mu­nity, a bright and busy place, home to wa­ter aer­o­bics for se­niors, a fit­ness cen­tre, lunch pro­grams and a day-care fa­cil­ity teem­ing with ir­re­sistible three­year-olds. It served as the cri­sis cen­ter af­ter the Oc­to­ber shoot­ing.

Vic­tims, neigh­bors and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials flooded in. One hun­dred vol­un­teer ther­a­pists coun­seled 200 peo­ple in the first three weeks.

The city’s Cen­ter for Vic­tims still coun­sels around 55 peo­ple. Trauma specialist­s here speak of con­cen­tric cir­cles of need, spread­ing from the in­jured and peo­ple who lost fam­ily mem­bers to wit­nesses and sur­vivors, then to first re­spon­ders, mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion, res­i­dents of the neigh­bor­hood.

Peo­ple blocks away from the crime scene were trau­ma­tized. Dozens of emer­gency ve­hi­cles tore through Squir­rel Hill that day. One woman, the grand­daugh­ter of Holo­caust sur­vivors, re­mains racked with fear when she hears an emer­gency siren on the sab­bath.

“Each shoot­ing that happens is a real trig­ger. This past week­end was hor­rid. I know what all those peo­ple are go­ing through,” says Ellen Surloff, pres­i­dent of Dor Hadash. “We’re 10 months past the shoot­ing, but in some ways, we’re nowhere.”

They were for­tu­nate in many ways, con­gre­gants say. They were al­ready mem­bers of a tightknit geo­graph­i­cal and spir­i­tual com­mu­nity. It strength­ened in the wake of the tragedy.

Pitts­burgh res­i­dents feel a par­tic­u­lar kin­ship with El Paso, where the shoot­ing was fu­eled by ha­tred of im­mi­grants. The al­leged Pitts­burgh shooter posted anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ments, con­demn­ing the Jewish com­mu­nity’s out­reach ef­forts to the city’s large refugee pop­u­la­tion.

There is no road map to the heal­ing. “I wanted to know what the fu­ture looks like,” says the Jewish Fed­er­a­tion of Greater Pitts­burgh’s Rabbi Amy Bar­dack, a mem­ber of a com­mit­tee plan­ning a per­ma­nent re­siliency cen­ter for vic­tims at the JCC. So she called a rabbi in Park­land.

“They were sev­eral months ahead of us,” Bar­dack says. “Fe­bru­ary was their shoot­ing.” Valen­tine’s Day.

Sev­eral months ahead, as though they were trains set­ting out from the same sta­tion on dif­fer­ent dates, a cruel math prob­lem.

“Other mass shoot­ings that are hate crimes are re­trig­ger­ing,” Bar­dack says. “The high hol­i­days are go­ing to be hard. Fall, as we approach the an­niver­sary of the shoot­ing, is go­ing to be re­trig­ger­ing. All of these touch points can be set­backs.” A trial will be re­trig­ger­ing.

“You have to make room for the pain in it,” Bar­dack says “It isn’t al­ways the time for po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. You’re not mak­ing space for the enor­mity of the event.”

Carolyn Ban, a mem­ber of Dor Hadash who works on the com­mit­tee help­ing refugees, was moved to po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. “This tragedy is not just ours, but that of the whole coun­try. I could not sit still and do noth­ing,” she says. In Jan­uary, the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus helped found Squir­rel Hill Stands Against Gun Vi­o­lence, a spon­sor of Thurs­day’s rally and vigil.

“How can you get past it when it keeps hap­pen­ing?” says Ste­fanie Small of Jewish Fam­ily & Com­mu­nity Ser­vices, the lo­cal part­ner with HIAS, the refugee group that was a tar­get of the al­leged shooter’s wrath. “It’s like the BandAid keeps get­ting ripped off again and again.”

New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perl­man, Yael’s fa­ther, was in the syn­a­gogue on Oct. 27. “I was doing well un­til the week­end,” he says, re­fer­ring to Day­ton and El Paso. “I take this very hard. I feel a lit­tle bit help­less. I feel peo­ple are over­whelmed by all the sto­ries on the news.”

He sits in his new of­fice at Con­gre­ga­tion Beth Shalom, sur­rounded by re­li­gious tomes. His con­gre­ga­tion and the two oth­ers at­tacked haven’t re­turned to wor­ship at the Tree of Life building. They may never re­turn.

Perl­man took off all of July af­ter tend­ing to his con­gre­ga­tion of 100 fam­i­lies for months. He looks ex­hausted.

“The trauma is just a day-by-day thing that we carry,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to go away.”

Squir­rel Hill is a neigh­bor­hood of stately brick houses and ver­dant lawns, now plac­arded with yel­low signs that read “No place for hate. Squir­rel Hill” and Steel­ers signs joined by the Star of David. Stars swing from tele­phone poles and out­side the shut­tered Tree of Life tem­ple.

Later this month, screens with chil­dren’s art will be erected out­side the building to make it look less like a crime scene.

“Peo­ple want to pay re­spects. They want to say they’re sorry,” says Stephen Co­hen, New Light’s co-pres­i­dent. “We call them trauma tourists. And the peo­ple come. And they come. And they come. Over and over again.”

Cer­tainly, they will come on Oct. 27. Later this month, the three con­gre­ga­tions will an­nounce plans for the first an­niver­sary that no com­mu­nity wants to hold. Af­ter an in­ter­view at the JCC, Co­hen leaves for a meet­ing with the lo­cal pub­lic sta­tion to dis­cuss com­mem­o­ra­tive cov­er­age.

This, per­haps, is what res­i­dents of Vir­ginia Beach, Gil­roy, El Paso and Day­ton can ex­pect. Af­ter all, Pitts­burgh is sev­eral months ahead.


Above, Si­galle Ba­hary, 20, left, and Yael Perl­man, 18, look through sym­pa­thy cards sent from around the world. Perl­man’s fa­ther is a rabbi of one of the three Jewish con­gre­ga­tions at­tacked in Pitts­burgh in Oc­to­ber 2018. Right, well-wish­ers at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh sign ban­ners to be sent to El Paso, Texas and Day­ton, Ohio. Be­low right, a sign on the fence across the street from the Tree Of Life syn­a­gogue.

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