Five years later, trauma compounds for survivors marking Tree of Life massacre amid Israel-Hamas war

Oct 28, 2023, 5:30 AM | Updated: Nov 30, 2023, 5:34 pm

People gather for a Commemoration Ceremony, on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Schenley Park, in the Squi...

People gather for a Commemoration Ceremony, on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Schenley Park, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to remember the 11 worshippers killed by a gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue five years ago. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In one sense, there was a feeling of closure as survivors of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history joined with hundreds of others for prayers, poetry and music at an outdoor commemoration of the 11 people who were killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue five years ago on Friday.

It was the first commemoration since the killer was convicted and sentenced to death after a long-stalled legal process.

But it also came less than three weeks after Hamas attacks killed more than 1,400 in Israel, and two days after the latest mass shooting in the United States claimed 18 lives in Maine — creating what one participant described as “trauma upon trauma upon trauma.”

It was important to make “the space to specifically remember 10/27, even when there is crisis in the world and other things that feel like they are overwhelming and scary,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, formed to help survivors and others in the wake of the attack.

The outdoor commemoration was held amid autumn colors and summer-like humidity in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park, about a mile and a half from the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 worshipers from three congregations were killed on Oct. 27, 2018.

It is the first commemoration since the killer, Robert Bowers, was sentenced to death in federal court in August for the attacks. Bowers was convicted in June of 63 federal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death.

Speakers at the commemoration included Western Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan, who oversaw the prosecution. He recalled each of the victims, their personalities and their common devotion to their faith.

“I am a better person because I have had the privilege of learning even just a little bit about those 11 people, and for having been part of this five year act of remembering them and their beautiful lives,” he said.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack, offered prayer in Hebrew and English for the 11, his voice at times catching with emotion as he honored them as martyrs for having been killed in the act of sanctifying God’s name.

Myers said afterward that while the completion of the criminal trial offered some closure, “Events don’t follow a script, so even though we flip to the next proverbial chapter, it’s a blank page that we’re writing.”

The victims were members of three congregations that met at Tree of Life — Dor Hadash, New Light and the host congregation. They included Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.

The ceremony included several musical pieces on instruments from the “Violins of Hope,” project, which uses actual instruments that Jewish musicians had performed on during the Holocaust.

While the commemoration focused on the Pittsburgh attack, there were reminders of the ongoing war in the Middle East. After Hamas’ bloody rampage in southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli forces have launched waves of airstrikes on Gaza, where the Palestinian death toll has passed 7,300.

One participant in the crowd was draped in an Israeli flag, and several sang aloud with emotion when the string ensemble played the Israeli national anthem.

Joyce Fienberg’s son Howard Fienberg said after the ceremony that he was grateful that his mother “received some measure of justice,” at this year’s trial. But Israeli victims of the Hamas attacks were also on his mind.

“For the last 20 days, I have been shaking and angry and upset and worried about my friends and family, and people that I’ve never met,” he said. “And I worry, will they receive justice? Will anything be done for them?”

The commemoration comes as plans advance for the reconstruction of the Tree of Life synagogue complex, which has been dormant since the shootings. The plans, by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, will include preserving some parts of the existing structure and replacing others, with spaces for worship, community activities and programming about antisemitism. A dramatic skylight will run the length of the roof. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh plans to share some of the space. A museum will focus on the roots, history and manifestations of antisemitism in America.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Five years later, trauma compounds for survivors marking Tree of Life massacre amid Israel-Hamas war