A club no one wants to join:
How Pittsburgh is reaching out to comfort El Paso and Dayton
by Karen Heller, Washington Post
PITTSBURGH — A vigil would help. Yael Perlman would go to one Thursday evening. First, she needed to do something immediate and personal for the victims of El Paso and Dayton and Gilroy.
Write letters to the families of the murdered. That’s what she could do.
She thought about when her synagogue was attacked about 10 months ago. A Saturday morning, as services began, by a shooter spewing anti-Semitic statements, killing 11 and wounding six. In the days immediately after, Yael received a cache of handwritten letters from people who lost loved ones in other attacks, including 9/11, letters she treasures and displayed on the fireplace mantel for months.
So earlier this week, Yael, 18, gathered biographies of the victims and used social media to organize a letter-writing event. She put out a plate of grapes. Volunteers arrived Tuesday night, 46 in all, pens ready. On the first floor of her congregation’s new home, folding cafeteria tables were designated by city. Dayton here. El Paso over there.
“Conversation about the shooting here comes up every day,” Yael says.
“Grief doesn’t work on a deadline,” says her mother, Beth Kissileff.
Pittsburgh belongs to a club it never wanted to join, the sites of carnage caused by semiautomatic military-style weapons and hate. As the mass shootings proliferate, through Aurora, Newtown, Parkland and Orlando, these communities compose a loose network of trauma. After each massacre, survivors across the country offer messages of empathy to the latest community affected — while coping with a new surge of sorrow at home.
Most people in Pittsburgh can cite the date of its shooting, especially in the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, home to a dozen synagogues in less than three square miles.
“Our parents would say ‘Where were you when JFK was shot or on 9/11?’” says Sigalle Bahary, 20. “In Pittsburgh, it’s become the same thing. Where were you on October 27?”
After the murders at Tree of Life synagogue, which also housed New Light and Dor Hadash congregations, the residents of Newtown, Conn., subsidized coffee at Commonplace Coffee. There were conversations with people from Parkland, Fla. A dozen members of the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center mosque, the site of a 2017 attack, made the 12-hour drive to offer solace.
To observe the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, an interfaith Pittsburgh group traveled to Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine African Americans were murdered in 2015 by a white supremacist. At the end of the service, they were enveloped in a massive group hug from parishioners. People of Pittsburgh, particularly sensitive to carnage related to faith, reached out to residents of Christchurch after 51 people were massacred at two New Zealand mosques in March.
We live in a time of constant vigils staged in central squares and on church steps. There were vigils Monday in Charleston. Orlando plans to hold one Friday.
On Wednesday, Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Center held a banner signing to honor the residents of El Paso, Dayton and the city’s Latinx community. Wishes were inked with silver Sharpies in the center’s central hall, which was decorated with photos of Pittsburgh’s paragon of kindness, Fred Rogers.
Thoughts and prayers — Damian. Love and prayers — Manny. Stay strong — Loretta.
The center held a similar signing after the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, which left 12 dead and four wounded. That was nine weeks ago.
The JCC is the hub of the community, a bright and busy place, home to water aerobics for seniors, a fitness center, lunch programs and a day-care facility teeming with irresistible 3-year-olds. It served as the crisis center after the October shooting. Victims, neighbors and law enforcement officials flooded in. One hundred volunteer therapists counseled 200 people in the first three weeks. The city’s Center for Victims still counsels around 55 people. Trauma specialists here speak of concentric circles of need, spreading from the injured and people who lost family members to witnesses and survivors, then to first responders, members of the congregation, residents of the neighborhood.
People blocks away from the crime scene were traumatized. Dozens of emergency vehicles tore through Squirrel Hill that day. One woman, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, remains racked with fear when she hears an emergency siren on the Sabbath.
“Each shooting that happens is a real trigger. This past weekend was horrid. I know what all those people are going through,” says Ellen Surloff, president of Dor Hadash. “We’re 10 months past the shooting, but in some ways, we’re nowhere.”
They were fortunate in many ways, congregants say. They were already members of a tightknit geographical and spiritual community. It strengthened in the wake of the tragedy.
Pittsburgh residents feel a particular kinship with El Paso, where the shooting was fueled by hatred of immigrants. The alleged Pittsburgh shooter posted anti-immigrant sentiments, condemning the Jewish community’s outreach efforts to the city’s large refugee population.
There is no road map to the healing. “I wanted to know what the future looks like,” says the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Amy Bardack, a member of a committee planning a permanent resilience center for victims at the JCC. So she called a rabbi in Parkland.
“They were several months ahead of us,” Bardack says. “February was their shooting.” Valentine’s Day.
Several months ahead, as though they were trains setting out from the same station on different dates, a cruel math problem.
“Other mass shootings that are hate crimes are retriggering,” Bardack says. “The high holidays are going to be hard. Fall, as we approach the anniversary of the shooting, is going to be retriggering. All of these touch points can be setbacks.” A trial will be retriggering.
“You have to make room for the pain in it,” Bardack says “It isn’t always the time for political action. You’re not making space for the enormity of the event.”
Carolyn Ban, a member of Dor Hadash who works on the committee helping refugees, was moved to political action. “This tragedy is not just ours, but that of the whole country. I could not sit still and do nothing,” she says. In January, the University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus helped found Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, a sponsor of Thursday’s rally and vigil.
“How can you get past it when it keeps happening?” says Stefanie Small of Jewish Family & Community Services, the local partner with HIAS, the refugee group that was a target of the alleged shooter’s wrath. “It’s like the Band-Aid keeps getting ripped off again and again.”
New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Yael’s father, was in the synagogue on Oct. 27. “I was doing well until the weekend,” he says, referring to Dayton and El Paso. “I take this very hard. I feel a little bit helpless. I feel people are overwhelmed by all the stories on the news.”
He sits in his new office at Congregation Beth Shalom, surrounded by religious tomes. His congregation and the two others attacked haven’t returned to worship at the Tree of Life building. They may never return.
Perlman took off all of July after tending to his congregation of 100 families for months. He looks exhausted.
“The trauma is just a day-by-day thing that we carry,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to go away.”
Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood of stately brick houses and verdant lawns, now placarded with yellow signs that read “No place for hate. Squirrel Hill” and Steelers signs joined by the Star of David. Stars swing from telephone poles and outside the shuttered Tree of Life temple. Later this month, screens with children’s art will be erected outside the building to make it look less like a crime scene.
“People want to pay respects. They want to say they’re sorry,” says Stephen Cohen, New Light’s co-president. “We call them trauma tourists. And the people come. And they come. And they come. Over and over again.”
Certainly, they will come on Oct. 27. Later this month, the three congregations will announce plans for the first anniversary that no community wants to hold. After an interview at the JCC, Cohen leaves for a meeting with the local public station to discuss commemorative coverage.
This, perhaps, is what residents of Virginia Beach, Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton can expect. After all, Pittsburgh is several months ahead.