Tree of Life victim Joyce Fienberg remembered as deeply caring


Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Rangel

Joyce Fienberg, 75, worked as a research specialist in Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center for 25 years before she retired in 2008.

By Remy Samuels, Staff Writer

Whether she was opening the doors to her synagogue on Saturday mornings or welcoming graduate students into her home for the holidays, Joyce Fienberg expressed kindness in all aspects of her life.

Fienberg, 75, was one of the 11 victims in the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Prior to her passing, Fienberg worked as a research specialist for 25 years in the Learning Research and Development Center at Pitt. After her successful research career ended with retirement in 2008, she dedicated her energy to volunteer work and attended services at Tree of Life.

Born in Canada, Fienberg received her bachelor’s degree in social psychology at the University of Toronto. After marrying the late Dr. Stephen E. Fienberg in 1965, the pair moved to Pittsburgh in 1980. In 1982, the then-40-year-old Fienberg joined Pitt’s research team to help Gaea Leinhardt, emeritus professor and researcher at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, research methods of teaching and learning in classrooms.

She observed classrooms and analyzed how teachers presented information to their students. According to Leinhardt, Fienberg took her work very seriously — she rarely let information slip past her.

“She was extraordinarily careful and thorough about everything,” Leinhardt said. “That kind of sounds like a boring characteristic, but it wasn’t at all.”

Under Leinhardt’s guidance, Fienberg examined the ways in which teachers spoke to their students and the skills needed to be an effective teacher. According to Leinhardt, Fienberg had a habit of making everyone at the research center feel as though she cared deeply about them.

“When I would hire a new postdoc [to the LRDC] … the minute the postdoc arrived, Joyce would say ‘c’mon I’ll take you to dinner,’ or ‘come to my house’ very spontaneously and warmly,” Leinhardt said. “It wasn’t a requirement, but it was what she felt someone would need.”

According to Leinhardt, the Jewish faith had always played a significant role in Fienberg’s life and relationships with others. She raised her two sons, Howard, who lives in Vienna, Virginia, and Anthony, who lives in Paris, to observe Jewish traditions. After her husband’s passing in December 2016, Fienberg attended services every week to mourn — and continued attending synagogue up until her death.

“I think her sense of being Jewish has always been extremely strong. [Death] often results in an isolation from the rest of the world, but that wasn’t the case for her,” Leinhardt said.

Not only was Fienberg a key member of Leinhardt’s research team, she was also the guardian of Leinhardt’s daughter — meaning Fienberg would become her parental figure if either Leinhardt or her husband were to pass away.

“It says you trust that person very, very much,” Leinhardt said.

Fienberg was intensely focused on both her role as a loving person and as an effective researcher. Elizabeth Rangel, the director of communications at LRDC, said Fienberg’s work was “really cutting-edge at the time” and that Fienberg’s title as a research specialist meant much more than it suggested.

“She’s not called a professor, but in so many ways she really supported the team in an academically significant way, though her title maybe didn’t reflect that,” Rangel said.

Outside of Pitt, Fienberg was well known at Carnegie Mellon University, where her husband was a professor and served as the head of the Department of Statistics. Though many at CMU knew her through her husband’s status, she was most known for the close relationships she formed with the students.

Christopher Genovese, a professor and current chair of the Department of Statistics at CMU, remembered Fienberg for her calm demeanor, especially in the face of challenges, and her willingness to help struggling students.

“She was very detail-oriented and super sharp,” Genovese said. “She was always a pleasure to talk to, always a pleasure to see. You always felt like you had her undivided attention and if something was going awry she would tell you and perk people up … She did that with me more than a few times. She was really a tremendous person all the way through.”

On the Friday before the shooting at Tree of Life, Genovese saw Fienberg at an inauguration event for the new president of Carnegie Mellon. It was not unusual for Fienberg to attend these sorts of events even after her husband’s passing.

She remained heavily involved in the university, and supported underrepresented students by attending charity events. Up until the final moments of her life, Genovese said Fienberg continued to make lasting impressions on people.

“I can’t tell you how many people from that event said, ‘Oh, I just talked to Joyce and we had a wonderful conversation,’” Genovese said. “I think [her] impact on the community was really powerful, [and a lot of] individuals were touched by her.”

Charles Perfetti, a distinguished psychology professor and the director of Pitt’s LRDC, agreed. Though he did not work alongside Fienberg and mostly ran into her on the elevator, Perfetti said he felt touched by the numerous interactions he had with her because of her unfailingly kind personality. He described her as a very engaging, warm and inviting person who loved to interact with everyone.

“She was someone I liked a lot even though I didn’t know her as well as some people did,” Perfetti said. “She could talk about almost anything in current research and the center, but also about life in general. That was the person that I remember.”

Perfetti said everyone who knew Fienberg, especially older faculty and long-term staff, has felt a great loss after the Tree of Life massacre. For people who knew her well, Perfetti said the pain multiplied.

“I think, the fact is, everyone in the Pittsburgh community, University faculty or otherwise, were shocked and devastated by what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue,” Perfetti said. “Eleven people were murdered. That’s enough of an impact on anybody.”

For Leinhardt and those who worked on the research team with Fienberg, the impact of her death is a tremendous loss. Leinhardt said the small group of people that worked closely with Fienberg feel as though they want to be better people because of how “good of a human being” she was.

“She was someone who thought of something and then acted on it in a way of kindness,” Leinhardt said. “She was just a very special human being. I think the world is much poorer without having her in it.”