Tree of Life
Sunday, October 27, marked one year since the worst Anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States. Three congregations that had worshipped in the Tree of Life building, a community, a neighborhood, a city, a country and the wider Jewish world remembered the victims, consoled the survivors, saluted the first responders and thanked the helpers.
JCC Association returned to Pittsburgh to stand with a wounded city. Our continental board joined the Pittsburgh Jewish community and together with leaders, friends and visitors from near and far took part in a day of service and Torah study and attended the powerful city-wide memorial commemoration at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum. Twenty-one JResponders from sixteen JCCs across the continent spent the day at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh (JCCPGH) standing in for local staff so they could mark the day as they chose. JResponders assisted with a community blood drive which drew far more willing donors than could be accommodated. And they guided grieving members of the community to the JCC’s newly inaugurated resiliency center, the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
On the preceding day, Shabbat, together with friends and colleagues I went to services at Tree of Life. The building remains closed, so services take place at alternative locations. Beneath a gray sky and under falling rain, this service was held at the Calvary Episcopal Church, which had also welcomed the Tree of Life congregation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A synagogue that in recent years had often struggled to gather a few tens of worshippers for Shabbat on this day drew more than 500. Clergy of every background, civic leaders and government officials, uniformed first responders, social service professionals, neighbors and friends filled the chapel to overflowing.
Calvary Episcopal Church had bent over backwards to make the setting as comfortable as possible, covering overt Christian symbols in simple black drapes and decorating common spaces with artwork given to Tree of Life by well-wishers from around the world. As a child I remember being told that it was considered inappropriate for a Jewish person even to set foot inside a church. Yet here I was—here we were—in a beautiful cathedral, celebrating Shabbat, a Shabbat of love and healing.
Survivors of the attack were called to the Torah for the seven Aliyot. Before chanting the prayer that precedes the Torah reading, each one graciously explained that their Aliyah was dedicated to those whose courage and support helped the families to endure and to begin looking to the future. First responders. Hospital and medical staff. Counselors and social workers. Jewish community leaders. Volunteers of every stripe and style. Each group, ahead of each Aliyah in turn, was asked to stand. When first responders rose to their feet before the first Aliyah, applause came from the section where the families of the victims were seated, applause that spread throughout the chapel. Tears of love and gratitude flowed. And this remarkable, and for me unprecedented, experience—applause during a Torah service, repeated itself seven times. Seven extraordinary moments of gratitude from the families and from a community for those who came to their aid; to ease their suffering.
It took not more than a moment or two for me to forget that I was sitting in a church. And by the end of the service something else had become clear. Tree of Life isn’t a building. It isn’t a place. It’s a community. An extended family. And wherever it gathers together in worship and love—it’s home.
It was fitting that the Parasha this past Shabbat was Beresheet | פרשת בראשית, “In the Beginning…” as the Pittsburgh community too starts over, its eyes turning to the future. Challenges, both old and new, will need to be faced, among them a return to the work of renewing the congregation itself. Membership has shrunk considerably over the years, but now we have a chance to lend a hand once more. Tree of Life has embraced an “open membership” policy, which means that each congregant decides how much to pay, and all are welcome. On Tuesday I joined Tree of Life. And I hope you will too. Send whatever amount you see fit, to:
Let’s swell the ranks of this extraordinary congregation as a continuing expression of our love and support. One more thing. Please encourage those in your life who would find meaning in becoming a member of Tree of Life to do the same. Together we can make the Tree of Life community as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17). And in so doing, we can restore some of what was lost as we honor the memories of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger. Y’hi zichram baruch | May their memory be a blessing |יְהִי זִכְרָם בָּרוּךְ.
Brian Schreiber, special advisor to the president and CEO of JCC Association, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh (JCCPGH), a member of Tree of Life congregation, and a Squirrel Hill resident; wrote this beautiful op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, which I encourage you to read.
Shabbat Shalom | שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם