Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Mayoral Advisor Steve Erwin at the Tree of Life Synagogue memorial site on Mount Arazim.
(photo credit: DENNIS ZINN/KKL-JNF)
Sunday, February 24, 2019: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto plants an olive tree at the memorial site established by JNF-USA and KKL-JNF in memory of the 11 victims murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
No one was surprised when Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto stepped off the plane after his 11-hour flight and requested to go immediately to the memorial site near Jerusalem established for the 11 congregants murdered in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Mayor Peduto had arrived in Israel to attend the 33rd International Mayors Conference, but the visit to the memorial was at the top of his agenda. Onsite to greet the Pittsburgh Mayor, upon his arrival to the Mount Arazim memorial site, was Head of the Masorti-Conservative Movement in Israel Dr. Yizhar Hess, who was representing the KKL-JNF World Executive, KKL-JNF Chief of Protocol Andy Michelson, and Director of KKL-JNF’s USA Desk Liat Itzhak-Herzog. Mayor Peduto told them that he how pleased and relieved he was to have finally come here. “This is my first visit to Israel. I have wanted to come for a long time, and that need grew even more acute after the horrific shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in October last year.”
On Saturday, October 27, 2018, during the Shabbat morning service, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire. Eleven people were killed and six others, including four police officers, were injured. Shortly after the tragedy, KKL-JNF and JNF-USA erected a stone plaque with the names of the deceased at the 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza in the Arazim Valley outside Jerusalem.
Mayor Peduto gazed at the plaque and read the names, and was overwhelmed with emotion. “I have a long history with the Tree of Life congregation,” he said. “I live just a few blocks away and I knew some of the victims personally. I was shocked that Saturday morning when I was alerted to the tragedy in progress. It was difficult to believe that it was happening in our city. However, unlike 80 years ago when Jews were murdered, the people of Pittsburgh rallied to help those under attack. The police and politicians did not look the other way or try to hide; they stood up and said ‘never again,’ they said ‘an attack against one is an attack against us all’.”
Dr. Yizhar Hess spoke of the pain that was felt in Israel after hearing the news. “The attack took place at the end of our Sabbath due to the time difference, so we followed the proceedings on live TV. It was horrific, and unbelievable that it was happening in the U.S. We saw you, Mayor Peduto, in action, with your strong moral voice. At that time, and during the following days and weeks, we in Israel felt we were all Pittsburghers.”
Pittsburgh Mayoral Advisor Steve Erwin, who traveled to the Mayors Conference together with his boss, cried when he saw the memorial plaque. “I did not expect to cry, but this memorial in Jerusalem, bearing the names, is very powerful. Not only did I know them all, I was a chazan (cantor) at that synagogue for three-and-a-half years. My children all went to pre-school at the synagogue and my boys had their Bar Mitzvahs there. It is a very tight community. The Pittsburgh JNF-USA offices are located less than a block from the shul.”
Mayor Peduto planted an olive tree next to the memorial plaque, as a symbol of peace and continuity. Michelson then presented Peduto with a traditional Jewish National Fund Blue Box. The mayor, in turn, handed Michelson and Hess each a colorful brooch showing the iconic logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. This time, however, the logo looked a little different. After the synagogue shooting the design was changed to include a Magen David (The Star of David) and the phrase “Stronger than hate.” Mayor Peduto explained the deeper meaning of the logo change: “Football is religion in Pittsburgh. The fact that the team’s logo was changed even for a short while clearly shows the city’s strong bond with its Jewish community.”
Michaelson led the mayor on a tour of the adjacent 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza, which was established by KKL-JNF and JNF-USA, and told him: “This is the only memorial in the world that lists the names of each and every one of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks.”
On the way out of the 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza, Mayor Peduto stopped to take another look at the Tree of Life Synagogue memorial plaque and the olive tree he had just planted and captured them on camera. He then turned to Michelson and said: “It’s good to have come here. Now I am ready for the 33rd Mayors Conference, which begins tomorrow.”
See more photos from the ceremony with the Mayor of Pittsburgh.