Soon after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, Washington funeral director Joyce Torchinsky got a call from a colleague in Pittsburgh. “How soon can you get up here?” asked Sharon Ryave Brody, of the Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel, which was handling nine of the 11 funerals.
It wasn’t until Oct. 30 that Torchinsky, owner of Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home, had overseen the funerals on her calendar. That afternoon, she got into her car and drove straight to Pittsburgh. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said last week. “I just drove.”
When she reached Brody’s funeral home at 8 p.m., she found the staff still at work. They were discussing the division of responsibilities, including who would attend which funeral, who would arrange them and who would attend to the families.
In the emergency, Torchinsky provided an extra set of hands, going where she was needed and offering emotional support, not only to the mourners, but to the funeral home staff as well.
Torchinsky was joined by two other out-of-town funeral directors, all members of Kavod, an association of independent Jewish funeral chapels. There was Jay Mesenkoff from Amherst, N.Y., and Michael Smith from Cranston, R.I.
The three did not arrange funerals, but they greeted mourners, carried coffins and drove family members. At one funeral, Torchinsky said she greeted for two hours.
She also noticed the support coming from the wider Pittsburgh community. A banner outside a pharmacy proclaimed #LoveYourNeighbor (No Exceptions). A billboard read “Unite on prayer in Pittsburgh” in red, white and blue with a Star of David. The sign in front of a Wendy’s restaurant sign declared “PittsburghStrong Stronger Than Hate.”
In the quiet outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, she saw how many people had left tokens of their visit.
There was an “ocean of flowers.”
Others had left balloons and candles. In accordance with Jewish tradition, many left stones. There was even a pumpkin carved with the words ““Pittsburgh Strong” inside a Star of David.
“I had to be there,” she said. There was so much sadness in the air, Torchinsky said that “You couldn’t stand it.”
She left on Nov. 2, after the last of the funerals. Before she went, Brody presented her with a pin with the Ralph Schugar Chapel’s emblem. She has worn it every day since.