Pittsburghers honor Tree of Life massacre with day of service


Wu Caiyi | Staff Photographer

Gary Dubin, director of development at the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation at UPMC, helped deliver baked goods to first-responders around the City on the one-year commemoration of the Tree of Life massacre.

By Rebecca Johnson, Staff Writer

When Gary Dubin biked into the Shadyside EMS station on Sunday morning, he wasn’t looking for help — he was delivering freshly baked cookies. 

Dubin, the director of development at the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation at UPMC, was one of 44 cyclists who brought baked goods to first responders at 11 sites across Pittsburgh’s East End that morning. He wanted to express gratitude to those who helped his family during the Tree of Life massacre last year.

“I’m Jewish, and one of the synagogues in the Tree of Life building, my father-in-law was in it,” Dubin said. “There are few words that could say what it meant to have the first responders come out and give back to the Jewish community.”

When a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, every first-responder site in Pittsburgh answered. Along with the cyclists, a cohort of drivers visited 41 other sites throughout the City to honor first responders for the one-year commemoration of the Tree of Life massacre. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh organized the delivery with various congregations, Jewish organizations and victims’ families. The event was one of 31 service activities happening around Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Kate Rothstein, who works with the Federation, said the bike event was one way to unite the Pittsburgh community and give back to the first responders who risked their lives last year. During the massacre, four officers were injured — Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga, Anthony Burke and Timothy Matson. Mead, Burke and Matson have yet to return to work.

“I really wanted to have that connection of ‘We’re all part of the same City, we all want to be here for each other,’” Rothstein said. “I thought people biking to different parts of the City would be a great way to link different parts of the City, because all of the first responder sites came to the aid of Tree of Life last year.”

Rothstein said the actions of the first responders were especially meaningful given a history of governments turning a blind eye to violence against Jews.

[First responders] came without question. This hasn’t always been the case in Jewish history,” Rothstein said. “They rushed into the synagogue, they risked their [lives]. They were also injured, some pretty severely. Some are still not back to work.”

For Mike Bess, a paramedic with the Medic 9 and Rescue 1 teams, Pittsburghers showing up with gifts of appreciation meant a lot.

“Sometimes, this job gets taken for granted. Sometimes, it feels like we aren’t appreciated,” Bess said. “But, they drove here on their bicycles from Shadyside — that’s dedication. They took time out of their days and brought their kids. Hopefully, that will inspire future generations.”

Damian Jones, of Highland Park, delivered cookies to the Medic 9 station in Shadyside with his two young children, making volunteering a family affair. Jones said it’s important for his children to learn about volunteerism.

“I have kids and it’s important to show that we give back, and there’s a community here in Pittsburgh that takes care of each other,” Jones said. “Volunteering and taking care of those who have been through something and are in need, it’s the right thing to do.”

The bike delivery was just one of the events organized as part of the “Repair” arm of the “Remember. Repair. Together” mantra established in the wake of the massacre to unite the Pittsburgh community.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh also held two blood drives, with about 100 community members donating at its Squirrel Hill location and 47 in the South Hills.

Stephanie Levin, the chief engagement and innovation officer of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in the San Francisco Bay area, lent her support in Pittsburgh this weekend. She said the Pittsburgh community is special, something she recognized from her first visit last December.

“Almost every person that I met had some connection either to this place or Tree of Life, including Uber drivers and people in the airport when I was trying to figure out how to even get to the Uber driver,” Levin said. “There’s something really magical about this place and the way that people are connected and seem to take care of each other.”

Levin said volunteering, especially in the face of tragedy, is a way that anyone — of any age, religion or ability — can make an impact, however small.

“When things like this happen, people feel powerless. They really don’t know what to do,” Levin said. “Volunteering is a wonderful way to bring people together on a day like today so no one has to be alone and everyone can be a part of the community.”

For the Pittsburgh Jewish community, this past year has been difficult, Rothstein said — but, she also reiterated that it’s been one of growth.

“It’s been a really long and hard year in the community,” Rothstein said. “But, it’s also been a year of learning that we are here for each other. It’s been a year of working to try to make things better — in the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community.”

For students new to Pittsburgh, Levin said, to prevent future attacks, she recommends using Pitt’s diverse campus to befriend people with different backgrounds.

“This is a beautifully diverse community,” Levin said. “Our best chance of ensuring that the Oct. 27 shooting doesn’t happen again is knowing and learning about people who are different than us.”