Together in ‘community,’ ‘compassion’: Community remembers Tree of Life massacre


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

The Tree of Life massacre took the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers attending Saturday services at the synagogue two years ago on Oct. 27, 2018, marking the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.

By Maura Scrabis, Staff Writer

Just a short ride from Pitt’s campus, the devastating Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood rocked the City to its core. Two years later, the community is still remembering and healing together.

Remembrance and action were the main themes touched upon by family members, friends and fellow congregation members at the two-year Tree of Life commemoration ceremony Tuesday evening. These two themes are also this year’s guiding principles of the ceremony’s host organization 10.27 Healing Partnership, a collaboration between community, government and faith-based organizations.

The Tree of Life massacre took the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers attending Saturday services at the synagogue, located in a close-knit City neighborhood known for its acceptance and tolerance. The worshippers belonged to the three congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha — which share the Tree of Life building. It is the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism.

The Pittsburgh-based 10.27 Healing Partnership was created in the wake of the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre to “provide opportunities for reflection, support and connection for those impacted by the tragedy.” This year, the partnership organized a day full of commemorative events, ending with a virtual ceremony to honor the lives lost. The recently released anthology, “Bound in the Bond of Life,” also brings together stories and personal essays from local journalists, spiritual leaders and community members.

At the beginning of the remembrance event, Maggie Feinstein, director of the partnership, reminded attendees of the importance of community action and honoring the lives of the victims.

“We reflect on their lives, as well the community that was impacted by this event two years ago,” Feinstein said. “Although we’re apart physically this year, we are together in both community and in compassion.”

Much different from last year’s gathering, this year’s memorial featured a series of videos played to more than 1,300 viewers on the livestream Tuesday evening. Videos from victims’ families and fellow congregation members were intertwined with songs from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Elana Arian, as well as readings from various rabbis and local government officials.

In the videos, members from the three congregations came together to reflect on the event and the loss of their friends. They also spoke of the actions they take on a daily basis to remember the victims. Anna Coufal, a Dor Hadash member, said she remembers the victims by fighting against hatred in her community.

“I remember those that were lost on Oct. 27 by dismantling systems of hatred and exclusion within myself and my community. I break down structures of white supremacy, of xenophobia, and of the dehumanization of others,” Coufal said. “I replace these systems with the loving infrastructure of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (loving thy neighbor) and b’tselem elohim (recognizing that each person was created in the image of God).”

Dana Kellerman, another Dor Hadash member, said she honors Tree of Life victims by advocating for policy changes to help prevent future hateful attacks.

“I remember the victims of Oct. 27, 2018, by advocating for sensible gun policy through Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, an organization I co-founded in the wake of the tragedy, and by working to vote out hate on Nov. 3,” Kellerman said.

She also said she remembers her former fellow congregation member Jerry Rabinowitz by following his compassionate principles and urges leaders to do the same.

“Had our leaders lived up to Jerry Rabinowitz’s principles of welcoming the stranger with generosity and passing gun laws to protect us all, instead of fostering an environment where white supremacy, xenophobia and anti-Semitism could flourish, I believe that Jerry would be here with us today,” Kellerman said.

As congregation members like Coufal and Kellerman talked about systemic change and the upcoming election, others like Andrew Exler focused on positive personal actions in their communities. Exler, a Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha member, said his pride in the Jewish community grew in the wake of the tragedy.

“I remember the lives lost by living my life every single day being more proud than ever to be Jewish,” Exler said. “I stand up for the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and worldwide, and I make my best effort to be as kind as possible to every single person I interact with.”

Throughout the event, family members of victims took time to light candles and share three words to describe each of their loved ones. The words loyal, compassionate, trustworthy, vivacious and resilient were used to illustrate the personalities of each victim.

Margaret Durachko, the wife of Richard Gottfried, described her late husband as gentle, intelligent and generous. She also spoke of remembering him through her daily actions.

“I remember him everyday just from my day-to-day life,” Durachko said. “I live in the house we shared for many years together, and in fact, many activities are still definite reminders of him, and I miss him every day.”

Near the end of the livestream, there was a section featuring videos from survivors of the attack. Every individual video lined up so that each survivor read the lines of a famous quote from Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel together, echoing the words “it’s indifference” throughout the first of the two minutes they were on screen.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference,” the Wiesel quote read.

By taking times like this to remember the victim’s stories, Feinstein said the community helps and supports each other.

“We have a special duty to remember the lives that were taken and lift up their stories whenever we can,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein said this community is a safe place for all people to come together.

“We are here for you, and you are not alone,” Feinstein said. “We’re a gathering place, we offer community building, we offer a place that people can come and offer comfort to each other, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that again soon safely.”