By Toby Tabachnick
PITTSBURGH — It’s been two years since a man wielding an assault rifle stormed the Tree of Life building in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, murdering 11 worshippers at the three congregations housed there: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
Not a day goes by that Andrea Wedner doesn’t think of her mother, Rose Mallinger, who, at the age of 97, was killed that day. The two were seated in the sanctuary, as they were most Saturday mornings, and before they could run, the gunman opened fire.
“I think of her every day, multiple times a day,” said Wedner. “And it still hurts. It hurts the most that she’s not here to enjoy the family and be with us. And what bothers me a lot, too, is the way she died.”
Of the 13 worshipers shot on Oct. 27, 2018, Wedner, a member of Tree of Life, and Dan Leger, a member of Dor Hadash, were the only two to survive. Now, two years later, although life is changed for both of them, they remain strong and resilient, determined to infuse their lives with meaning.
Although some of their injuries are permanent, both Leger and Wedner say they have adjusted.
“I’m doing well physically,” said Leger, a retired nurse and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center chaplain, who was shot in the chest. “Some days are better than others. I still have some physical problems that will probably be around for the rest of my days that are the result of this. But I’m alive, and they are manageable, and here I am.”
Wedner, a former dental hygienist, who was shot in the arm, acknowledged her hand “is not going to be 100 percent,” but she does have use of it.
“Some things are a little more challenging,” she said. “I’m grateful to have my arm and my hand. So I just deal with it.”
Both are grateful to have survived, and are resolute to get the most out of life.
While the pandemic has caused each of them to shift some plans — Wedner and her husband, Ron, planned trips that had to be canceled, and Leger’s plans to provide nursing services to the underserved are now on hold — they are both filling their days with activities that bring them joy and fulfillment.
As he did before the pandemic, Leger volunteers with the CheckMates program through AgeWell Pittsburgh, making calls to those who are homebound. He also checks in with members of Dor Hadash and is active on the steering committee of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, which helps those impacted by the shooting and others who have experienced trauma induced by hate. And he writes a lot, especially poetry.
“As Jews, we’re not supposed to really retire,” Leger said.
Wedner, who is also on the steering committee of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, fills her days babysitting her granddaughters, baking, taking walks, reading and keeping in touch with family and friends.
In the weeks and months following the shooting, Wedner, like others who were directly impacted by the massacre, was showered with messages of love and support from the local community, as well as from around the world. She is still feeling that love, which she calls “the key to my healing.”
“I’ve met so many wonderful people from this,” she said. “And it’s enriched my life.”
As the two-year commemoration of the shooting approaches, Wedner anticipates spending the day with her family.
“I know last year, leading up to it, and that day, I heard from so many people, and it was really helpful,” she said. “It’s so helpful that we get the support we get from family, friends, just the community.”
Leger is trying “not to overplan,” for Oct. 27, 2020, he said, anticipating he will spend the day with his wife, Ellen, and Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, was killed during the massacre. “I’m trying not to overthink it and to let whatever emotions come my way have a place to be.”
He has, though, been trying to “fill in some blanks,” he said. Not only has he finally started to examine, and process, his medical records concerning his injuries, but he is also trying to identify all “the helpers.”
“I’ve met with some of the police officers who have been involved, who came to help, and it led me to reach out to the Public Safety department to try to get a list of just who were all the people who were there that day,” he said. “Who were the helpers? Who came? I’m beginning to compile those names and it is just an extraordinary list, an extraordinary number of people who ran in our direction. They didn’t run away. They ran in our direction and they came to help.”
He hopes to be able to reach out to some of those people, and, if he is allowed, to acknowledge them publicly.
The trial of the gunman still has not been set, the delay due in part to the federal government seeking the death penalty. While Wedner does not spend a lot of time thinking about the eventual trial, Leger finds its delay difficult.
“It’s a prolonging and agonizing process that needs to come to as much closure as it can,” he said. “When people lose their lives, the people who lose those people from their very existence don’t have the opportunity of closure. But there are opportunities for closure about certain elements of the experience.”
He is trying, he said, to “learn as much as I can about why it is that we have such a proclivity in our culture for not being able to communicate well enough so that something like this can be avoided.”
There are many opportunities, Leger stressed, to honor the memories of “the beautiful people that we lost that day, things like learning opportunities and service opportunities. If anyone ever thinks they need an excuse to do something good, think about one of these people and do something in their memory. That’s how we keep them alive.”
For Wedner, the memory of her mother, Rose Mallinger, is constant. She remains an inspiration and she is “always around.”
“Life goes on,” Wedner said. “You have to keep going. My mother would want us to do that and I have to live on for her and through her. A lot of the things I do and say, I think of her. She’s always there. She keeps me going. She was a strong lady, so I think I may have inherited that from her. She was pretty amazing. She was a hoot. She was something, she really was. I miss her. We all miss her.”
Toby Tabachnick is the editor of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, a WJW-affiliated publication.