Community rallies together in response to Tree of Life tragedy


Photo courtesy of Rosalyn Yang

Pittsburgh community members leave flowers and notes outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, including a sign that says “praying” in Hebrew.

By Caroline Bourque, Contributing Editor

Gabriel Kaufman has always worn his Judaism proudly — walking Pitt’s campus dressed in traditional clothing such as a kippah and tzitzit, and sometimes even a “Don’t Worry Be Jewish” T-shirt. In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue, he doesn’t intend to change that.

“Just because one deranged man went into a synagogue and started shooting doesn’t mean I have to be afraid to be who I am,” he said. “If anything, I have to be a representative for the Jewish people and I have to show the outside world how great our culture really is.”

Kaufman — a senior finance and marketing major and former president of the Jewish student organization Chabad at Pitt — spent the hours following the shooting at candlelight vigils and emergency prayer sessions throughout campus.

As students and community members gathered to grieve and cope with the events of the past weekend, support for those affected by the shooting at Tree of Life has come mainly in the form of community action, which began in Pittsburgh and soon stretched across the globe.

Beginning in the hours directly following the shooting, blood donors showed up to donation centers at such high volume that providers had to turn individuals away at the door. According to Kristin Lane, the marketing lead for the community blood donation provider Vitalant, there was simply not enough space or resources to process each person for donation.

“We had so many generous people literally lined up outside the door to our donor centers, we simply did not have any way to accommodate them all,” Lane said. “But the most important part about that was we asked them to please, please come back and donate in the coming days and weeks.”

As a result of the high donor turnout, the Pittsburgh Penguins — for whom Vitalant is an official blood center partner — offered their accomodations at the PPG Paints Arena in downtown Pittsburgh for a “Pittsburgh Penguins Stronger Than Hate Blood Drive” on Monday, garnering more than 150 donors.

Back at Pitt, Emma Rose Shapiro — a senior chemistry major and GSWS minor and president of student group Challah For Hunger — spent the hours following the tragedy coordinating with her fellow club members to craft an initiative that would benefit those affected by the tragedy.

Pitt’s branch of Challah For Hunger, an international collegiate organization, meets on Thursday evenings to bake and braid the traditionally Jewish bread known as challah — often served on religious holidays and at Shabbat dinners. The group typically sells the bread every Friday in support of local hunger relief organizations, but created a new initiative this week to help support the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life.

Through social media, fellow student leaders and even camp friends across the country, Shapiro and fellow club members sent out an order form for customers to “Sponsor a Challah” to be sent to the Tree of Life Synagogue for its Shabbat dinners in the coming weeks. As of Monday evening, the group received orders for 1,191 loaves, raising $3,500 in sales and another $3,000 in donations for the Tree of Life Synagogue.

“It has a lot of symbolism,” Shapiro said. “Joining the community like the different strands of the braids all coming together and just combining the tradition of Judaism with what we stand for is basically the essence of Challah For Hunger.”

As the order form made its way throughout the national Jewish community, another online campaign was taking a similar route — this one titled #Mitzvah4Pittsburgh, sponsored by the national Chabad on Campus organization.

As Kaufman explained it, there are 613 Mitzvahs, or moral deeds performed out of religious duty that outline the central tenants of the Jewish faith. On the page for the #Mitzvah4Pittsburgh campaign, individuals can pledge to do a good deed in honor of those who lost their lives at Tree of Life. The page now lists upwards of 2,500 Mitzvahs as of Monday evening — including everything from “Go to a Torah class” to “Call your parents.”

“When a situation like this happens, our goal is to make sure that people fight hate with acts of love and kindness,” Kaufman said. “We’re big proponents of the idea that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of hate,”

In a public Facebook post, Wasi Mohamed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, shared a similar sentiment.

“As the Quran and Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) teach us, we will respond to evil with good,” Mohamed said in the post.

Mohamed expressed condemnation of the shooting on behalf of the Pittsburgh Muslim community, and extended condolences and support by sharing a fundraising campaign that has quickly gone viral online — raising more than $170,000 so far.  

While the local community continues to grieve in Pittsburgh, vigils have cropped up in numerous cities across the nation. On social media, stories of tributes around the globe have made their way back to Pittsburgh — reaching as far as Paris, where the lights of the Eiffel Tower were turned off in tribute.

One particularly personal Facebook post referenced Jerry Rabinowitz, a late victim of the shooting and a former physician. Michael Kerr, the author of the post, said Rabinowitz treated him in a caring and indiscriminate manner for HIV during the height of the AIDS crisis.

“You will be remembered by me always,” Kerr said in the post.