In the face of death: Rebirth and unity

The Pittsburgh massacre rallies Jews together to counter the atrocity with positivity.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond leads a vigil outside the Tree of Life synagogue on November 3 (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
Rabbi Chuck Diamond leads a vigil outside the Tree of Life synagogue on November 3
(photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
ON THE morning of Saturday, October 27, while a cool rain drizzled on the leafy Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the sound of gunshots pierced the sleepy streets.
The shots came from Tree of Life Congregation, a synagogue on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues - a neighborhood famous for its friendliness, for being the home of American television icon Mr.
Rogers, and for being the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh.
For about 20 minutes, the shooter walked through the building that housed three congregations – Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light - mercilessly shooting helpless synagogue members. Eleven people were killed, six were wounded, one critically.
David and Cecil Rosenthal, aged 54 and 59, respectively, were greeters at the congregation and seemed to be friends with everyone in the close-knit community. The two brothers were roommates and friends, living at Achieva, an assisted living center for people with intellectual disabilities. At their funeral the two were lovingly remembered as “gentle giants.”
“David and Cecil were men,” their sister Diane said, “but, as you know, we referred to them as boys. They were innocent like boys, not hardened like men with age and experience…. They lived their lives with joy, love and happiness, not with resentment and hate.”
Three people in the synagogue during the shooting said that Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz had been in a separate Bible room when the shooting began, but had ran out to the main shul when he heard the shooting. The 64-year-old primary-care doctor, likely died while rushing to help other victims who had been shot. “That was Uncle Jerry,” his nephew described him in heartfelt post on social media. “That’s just what he did.”
But Rabinowitz’s heroics came to no surprise to some. In a time when many doctors were terrified by HIV patients, Rabinowitz was known to treat his patients with dignity and with hugs.
Daniel Stein, 71, is believed to have been preparing lox and cream cheese bagels for the kiddush that was to take place after services when the gunman entered. A recent grandfather, Stein was adored by his family, with his son describing him as “a simple man” who loved visiting synagogue and playing “with his grandson, which he loved even more.” His grandson’s brit milah took place at Tree of Life earlier this year.
Stein’s nephew told Buzzfeed that he “loved going to the synagogue every Saturday, every week, to do events. He loved to be there. This is what he looked forward to every week. He never missed it.”
Dr. Richard Gottfried, 65, was with Stein in the kitchen when the shooter entered to perform, what Gottfried’s nephew described as, “a vicious attack fueled by hate, fear and anger.” But his uncle “did not possess these emotions,” he said. “His world was full of love and compassion. He was about putting others first, whether it was immigrants and refugees or the uninsured.” Gottfried did this by volunteering at free dental clinics, providing services to refugees and immigrants and for those who couldn’t afford care.
At his funeral, through tears, his twin sister said: “He was smart, funny and kind. He loved life. He loved being a dentist, and his patients loved him. He was my trailblazer and the wind beneath my wings. I feel at a loss on how to carry on without him there to guide me.”
For Joyce Fienberg, Tree of Life was a place she began frequenting more often after her husband passed away. Instead of moving to be closer to her children, Fienberg chose to stay near the synagogue, which “became a refuge for her,” her son said at her funeral.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t bear it,” her brother said. “I can’t bear that this beautiful neshamah - this beautiful soul - went out of the world. Evil tried to shut off the light, but the light refuses to be dimmed. The light shines brightly in our hearts.
“It can’t be fixed. My sister is dead. My sister was murdered. There was no one I know like her. Pure goodness. She was the most tolerant and gentle person that I’ve ever known.”
While the Rosenthal brothers were the synagogue greeters, Irving Younger was fondly remembered for being the “schmoozer.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw this gunman walk into the room where the services were and his first thought was, ‘Can I help this stranger get settled?’...because that’s the kind of thought that he would have,” said former president of Tree of Life Barton Schachter.
At his funeral, while struggling through tears, Younger’s son said: “Every time he would see me and my sister, he would start tearing up. He would just come to us with open arms and hug us. He knew that we were the most precious thing to him and that every minute really counted.”
Pittsburgh’s Tribune-Review reported that Melvin Wax had three photos in his wallet on the day he died. One from the day his daughter got married, and two pictures of his grandson.
But his family wasn’t the only thing Wax held dear. Wax was a dedicated synagogue- goer who “would pray from the heart,” said his cousin, Rabbi Harvey Brotsky, a former rabbi at New Light. “He wouldn’t just be going through the motions. And he prayed every single Shabbat that I was at New Light Congregation, unless he was ill, and he came early on Saturday. It cost him his life.”
Wax was also remembered for his generosity of spirit and his devotion to the community.
In fact, just recently, the 87-year-old had worked to set up a voter registration drive in his apartment building to assist other people his age.
The oldest victim, Rose Mallinger, 97, died in the synagogue next to her 61-yearold daughter who was wounded but the only one in the room to have survived. Mallinger had attended the synagogue for the past 60 years, with Tree of Life becoming the “center of her very active life,” her family said.
“Her involvement with the synagogue went beyond the Jewish religion... It was her place to be social, to be active and to meet family and friends.”
“No matter what obstacles she faced, she never complained,” her family added. She did everything she wanted to do in her life….
Rose was Bubbie - Yiddish for grandma - to everyone in our family and our beloved community,” the family said.
Over 60 years earlier, family and friends gathered at Tree of Life synagogue for the marriage of Bernice and Sylvan Simon. This month, they gathered once again to mourn the couple, murdered in that very same room.
“Our parents did everything together as a married couple,” said the couple’s children.
“They were deeply in love with each other and persevered in the tragic loss of a son in 2010. As long-time and deeply-rooted Pittsburgh residents, their life together began 62 years ago and forever ended last Saturday in the exact same chapel where they were wed.
What my mother and father witnessed and endured is utterly unspeakable.”
“It is so hard to believe that she will never again take my hand and ask me, ‘Do you know how much we love you?'” their granddaughter said of Bernice.
FOLLOWING THE attack on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, Jews in America have had to face the horrific reality of antisemitism, like Jews have had to do so many times throughout history. But also like so many times throughout history, a place of horrific darkness made space for a renewal of light.
“God showed Moses the moon in its renewal and said: ‘When the moon is renewed, that will be the head of the month.’” – Rashi, a medieval commentary on the Torah, on Exodus 12:2 The Jews have a long relationship with the moon. The first commandment given to Moses in Exodus is to bless the new moon each month. For this reason, unlike the majority of the world that bases its calendar on the sun, the Jewish year requires leap months in order to maintain its lunar calendar.
But the moon also has other important characteristics that resemble the Jewish people.
Each month, despite the moon’s waning, when it looks like there is nothing but a sliver of it left in the night sky, it always has a rebirth to its full glory. Despite seeing only a silvery glow in the deep black abyss, the full moon always returns to its completeness.
Likewise, despite going through the darkest of times, despite pogroms and genocides, the Jews, too, always bounce back. As a people, the Jews wax and wane, just like the moon.
To this end, following the massacre, campaigns were created throughout the world in an attempt to counter the evil with a movement towards positivity and goodness.
To honor the 11 victims of the Pittsburgh shooting - Jews who took pride in attending synagogue - the American Jewish Committee (AJC) called on people “from New York to New Zealand and from Utah to the UK” to “Show up for Shabbat” - to attend synagogue to commemorate the lives of those who died doing just that.
Celebrities, politicians and organizations throughout the world - Jewish and non-Jewish - spread the message on social media using the hashtag #ShowUpForShabbat, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times.
The response was astounding. Synagogues across the world were filled to the brink, with thousands of Jews attending services, some for their first time.
In Washington, DC, 24-year-olds Jennifer Cook and Zachary Weinstein said they were moved to make the trip to synagogue after the shooting. “It comes down to the Jewish community being visible,” Weinstein told The New York Times. “We need a positive experience, some way to interact positively with Judaism instead of reading bad news.”
This message was also one stressed by Chabad of Pittsburgh, which launched a mission to have 1,100 mezuzot installed on the doors of Jewish people throughout the world - 100 for each of the victims. A mezuzah, a little scroll with the “Shema” prayer afixed to the doorpost, displays pride in one’s Judaism and is traditionally a symbol of God’s watchful eye over the safety and sanctity of the home.
And, as the nights get longer and the winds get colder, Jews usher in the month of Kislev and prepare for Hanukkah. This year, the message of the Festival of Lights cannot come at a more opportune time to act as a reminder that just as one small jug of oil lasted eight long and dark nights to light up the Temple, one small, persecuted minority of people has survived against all odds to continue to bring light unto the nations.