Memorial in Pittsburgh respects ‘the needs and wishes of those most directly impacted’

Thousands come to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall for a public program commemorating Oct. 27, 2018. Photo by Adam Reinherz

By Adam Reinherz

PITTSBURGH — As they did once before, thousands came to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum for a public program bookending one year since last October’s attack. Whether coming to remember, to grieve or in some sense move forward, more than 2,000 people gathered again in the historic auditorium for an evening of words and music.

Like last year’s vigil, speeches were delivered, but there was a different tone at this memorial. Absent were the thundering remarks from local and international politicians decrying bigotry and imploring resilience. Replacing them was a poem shared by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and readings by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Gone was the assembling of numerous and diverse religious leaders on the 78-foot-wide stage. Rev. Liddy Barlow and Wasi Mohamed represented the Christian and Muslim communities and jointly told an 18th-century story of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, who was dialectically taught by a peasant that love is knowing what pains another and bearing the burden of their sorrow. Unlike last year’s event, neither “The Star-Spangled Banner” nor “Hatkivah” were played — instead, Radiant Springs, a Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA) alumni ensemble, performed two classical instrumental pieces.

As a whole, the program and video, which afforded biographical insight into the lives of several of those killed in last year’s attack, was intended to respect “the needs and wishes of those most directly impacted,” said Cindy Snyder of the Center for Victims.

Psalm 23 was recited by Rabbi Elisar Admon and Malke Frank, representatives of Pittsburgh’s Jewish burial societies. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, intoned “El Maleh Rahamim,” and rabbis Jonathan Perlman and Doris Dyen, of congregations New Light and Dor Hadash, read “Mi Sheberach,” a prayer for healing, and “Birkat HaGomel,” a prayer for surviving a dangerous situation, but the rousing addresses that typified last year’s vigil were largely held to a minimum.

Anne-Marie Mizel, of Dor Hadash, described the congregation’s roots and noted the collective’s wounding by a gunman’s “act of hatred born of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”

“Xenophobia is as ancient as humanity. Anti-Semitic hatred is also nothing new. It has been with us for hundreds of years. It has not defeated us yet, and it will not defeat us now,” said Mizel.

Myers interjected levity by thanking God for the blessing of providing “graciousness” and answering a “daily need” for finding the “right words” after citing his paradoxical relationship to the opening line of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”). Myers said it was through the help of a 50-year-old Rolling Stones lyric that he came to better understand the aforementioned verse: “I have learned from Mick Jagger that I can’t always get what I want, but if I try sometimes I find I get what I need.”

Through the help of God, time and again, the past year has provided a pathway to “decry any and all who weaponize H speech,” Myers added. “I prefer to focus on a better H word: hope. My hope is born from my faith that we humans are capable of sublime achievements and that despite the non-stop bad news that is the only diet that we are fed I have chosen a new diet. There are really wonderful people doing some incredible things toiling in anonymity. They are the people who deserve to be in the news.”

Perlman similarly mentioned the press after exploring the early biblical stories of Cain and Noah. The two narratives of bloodshed “teach us that bad comes with good, that evil will always be present in the world and it’s our duty to learn the good so we can destroy the evil,” he said.

Listeners should “get moving” on becoming better, implored Perlman, who also offered instructions for media and government. “I think that we need to go gently during the second year and understand what trauma means and not to re-traumatize the victims and survivors of this event, and to know when a hot story, maybe it needs to be told next week, and just leave us alone so that we can mourn,” he said.

“I would like the government, this year, the federal and state government to finally take action on gun control,” noted the rabbi, who concluded, “Please, please let us treat each other with great warmth and sympathy. Let’s hope for a better tomorrow.”

Two sets of applause during Perlman’s remarks countered an otherwise quieter evening.

Such demonstration was deserved, noted Joan Sweet, who praised the rabbi for discussing firearm access.

“I’m so glad he said it because we need gun control,” she said.

All of the rabbis’ remarks were “on point,” said Steven Brand, of Squirrel Hill, who described the program as “moving, respectful and very appropriate.”

Throughout the Oct. 27 event, the words “remember,” “repair” and “together” appeared in speeches and signage. The public memorial, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, largely served as a day-ending capstone dedicated to those concepts, as at sites throughout the city, spaces were afforded for Torah study and reflection, as well as community service projects providing volunteers a chance to deliver cookies to first responders, serve lunch to those in need and assist landscapers by cleaning nearby cemeteries.

Hundreds who came to the Tree of Life building on Sunday chose to adopt one of 11 mitzvot or listen to an 11-minute Jewish thought. Groups congregated in public prayer outside both Soldiers & Sailors and the Tree of Life building. Passersby near the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill took to the sidewalks to inscribe chalk messages reading “Lord, write in us a new story,” and “Last year sorrow. This year peace.”

People brought flowers and cards, and embraced once again. Returning to Soldiers & Sailors afforded a chance to head “in the right direction,” said Sandy Spira.

There is value in congregating and remembering, explained Jon Fischer. “I think everyone here is here to move forward, and not to move on from this.”

Coming to the public memorial “felt good, not exactly closure, but just as a way to take the next step and really get moving I guess,” said Ashley Brown. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Adam Reinherz is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.

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