PITTSBURGH — One of the most profound lessons that Pittsburgh icon Fred Rogers taught his audience was something he learned from his mother: When dealing with frightening news, she said, “Look for the helpers.”
There was no shortage of helpers in Pittsburgh following the deadly shooting of congregants worshiping at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and four Pittsburgh Police officers on Oct. 27. Eleven people were killed, and six others wounded.
In Pittsburgh, community members from all faiths and all walks of life turned out to give blood, comfort those close to the victims, stand in solidarity against anti-Semitism, and donate funds to help defray the costs of the funerals and medical expenses.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, immediately after Robert Bowers began indiscriminately firing at worshipers, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh — in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — opened its doors and turned Levinson Hall into a “grief center” for families and friends of the victims, many still waiting to hear whether their loved ones had been injured or killed.
“All of the victims’ friends, family and community that wanted to be in one place, we immediately became the center for that,” said Cathy Samuels, the JCC’s senior director of development and communications. The JCC provided space, coordinated food, processed telephone calls and worked in conjunction with Allegheny County Human Services to provide support.
“We coordinated and used this building, and continue to use this building, for whatever FBI needs there are, as well as police, investigators, Salvation Army, Red Cross, everything that will support those who need a place to come,” Samuels said.
About 5,200 relatives and friends of victims congregated at the JCC on Saturday, some staying all day, until the facility closed at 10 p.m.
“It was horribly, devastatingly sad,” Samuels said. “I’ve never seen a situation before where people had to wait so terribly long to know the status of their family members. It was very difficult to watch, but very gratifying to be a part of and being able to support that.”
Maj. Raphael Jackson, a divisional leader of the Western Pennsylvania Division of the Salvation Army, was on site at the JCC’s temporary grief center serving the families and friends of the victims. Jackson, who has been working with the Salvation Army since 1980, had witnessed what one might imagine to be the worst of the worst — on 9/11 in New York, rendering care to victims and families after the attack on the World Trade Center. But Jackson said that the shooting that occurred at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha was “a whole different kind of horror.”
“Where 9/11 was a general community kind of horror, this was specific to a certain group of faith,” Jackson said. “These were people coming to worship and pray. This was like Satan rushing into the sanctuary and doing a heinous crime.”
Jackson was among many aid workers at the JCC “to fill in the areas where people might be falling through the gaps or may need emotional or spiritual care, making sure that no one is left on the fringes.”
Jewish Family and Community Services began providing counseling services to the injured and to bereaved families, community members, schools and agencies across the city on Monday.
The agency is making counselors available for the community on a drop-in basis in Room 202 at the JCC, and by appointment at JFCS. Its staff is also coordinating counseling and therapeutic support for children at all the local Jewish day schools.
Fundraising efforts — for the victims, the families of the victims and the congregations — were launched soon after the attack.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a “Victims of Terror Fund” online (jewishpgh.org/our-victims-of-terror-fund/). Donations are flooding in from local community members as well as those outside of Pittsburgh. The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago sent $25,000 “as an initial grant” to the Pittsburgh Federation’s fund.
“We will continue to assess needs in that community in the coming weeks,” an email to the Chicago Federation’s constituents read.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation showed its solidarity with the Jewish community — and the Steel City — by making a $25,000 donation to the Federation, and another $25,000 “to establish a fund with the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety to benefit the four Pittsburgh Police officers injured in Saturday’s tragic events,” Dave Soltesz, president of the Penguins Foundation, announced.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families from the Tree of Life Synagogue and the brave police officers who stepped in to prevent more tragedy,” Soltesz said. “All of Pittsburgh is grieving with you and supports you.”
The Penguins also planned a blood drive at PPG Arena on Monday.
Another avenue for donations was created through a GoFundMe campaign launched by Shay Khatiri, an Iranian immigrant, encouraging people to “respond to this hateful act with your act of love today.” By Sunday night, more than $470,000 had been donated to that fund.
The Muslim community initiated another fundraising effort for the victims’ funeral and medical expenses on LaunchGood. By Sunday night, that effort had raised $94,000.
Israel stood side by side with Pittsburgh in the wake of the murders, dispatching a delegation of four volunteers from United Hatzalah of Israel’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit.
The unit, which arrived in Pittsburgh Sunday night, will be in town for one week to assist the congregations, families of those who were killed in the attack, and other individuals by providing psychological and emotional stabilization and treatment.
Miriam Ballin, who is heading the team, said that United Hatzalah would be available to treat anyone affected by the terror attack “who feels the need for our assistance.”
The team will be employing techniques and tools developed in Israel that have proven effective in treating those who have experienced acts of terror in the Jewish state, she said. The team has reached out to all three Jewish day schools in Pittsburgh, and anticipates aiding children traumatized by the events.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and of diaspora affairs, came to Pittsburgh as an official emissary of the Jewish state to offer support to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and to meet with political leaders including Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Bill Peduto.
Bennett addressed the crowd assembled at an interfaith vigil Sunday night at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall.
“It has been nearly 80 years since Kristallnacht, and it is clear that anti-Semitism and Jew-hating is not a distant memory,” Bennett said. “It is a very real threat. Anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger.”
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, was also in Pittsburgh to offer support.
“As the ambassador of Israel to the United States it was very important to me to be here today,” Dermer said. “This is a community I’ve visited three or four times when I was economic attaché, and I have a close friend from college who is from here and his family lives in Pittsburgh, so I was appalled and shocked when I heard the news yesterday. I just came to mourn with the Jewish community here. Very tough day.”
Dermer said that Israel would share with Pittsburgh its knowledge regarding managing the aftermath of a terror attack.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a number of attacks like this,” he said. “We also had a terrible attack [in 2014] on worshippers in a synagogue in Jerusalem. … I think there are a lot of things that can be done in the future, but today I am just here to mourn with the community these terrible murders.”
Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, whose territory covers Pennsylvania, arrived in Pittsburgh Saturday night. He said he wanted to “light a candle and say a prayer for the victims.”
He also met with community members and politicians and planned to attend the funerals of the victims.
The Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha murders compel the Jewish community to plan carefully for the future, Dayan said.
“Obviously, I think the main point is the future,” he said, “for the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and for the Jewish community of America as a whole. This is the gravest anti-Semitic attack ever in American history. It has implications — security implications, law enforcement implications, education implications. We obviously as a foreign country do not have authority here to deal with all these things, but it doesn’t make those things not matter to us. The security of Jews all over the world matters to us.”
He encouraged Jews to remain active in their communities.
“One important question will be what attitude Jewish communities should take from this day on,” Dayan said. “I hope that Jewish communities across the nation will not be deterred by this, but will keep showing up in synagogues and at Jewish events and at Jewish community centers and showing their solidarity with Israel. That’s very important. You know we are a country that unfortunately has experience with these kinds of events and I believe that resilience is the most important thing.”
Interfaith outpouring of support at the JCC on Saturday was “enormous,” Samuels said. That support included phone calls, delivering food, “just popping in and out to see what they could do.”
At the Soldiers and Sailors vigil Sunday night, several non-Jewish faith leaders took the podium to offer support and prayers.
“We just want to know what you need,” Wasi Mohammed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, told the crowd. “If it’s people outside your next service protecting you, we will be there. We are here for the community. And that was the same offer made to me by this community after the election and the spike in hate crimes against our community, and the same offer this community made after 9/11. So we thank you for that.”
Toby Tabachnick is a senior staff writer for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.