Pittsburgh: A Lesson in Strength and Unity

When getting up from shiva, it is traditional to literally get up and walk around the block. It serves the purpose of reentry into daily life, though still feeling the pain of loss. In a sense, it is a declaration of one’s choice of life over despair; to remain active and engaged with the community and family that came to comfort you, and to continue one’s journey. It is in this way that we not only recover ourselves from our grief, but also honor those whom we have lost.

We went back to Pittsburgh this week, and we witnessed a community still in mourning, but also choosing to stand even stronger; to strive even farther to engage others in the sacred work of community. They have a difficult road ahead. There will be recurring pain and anger, but there will also be a renewed sense of purpose, and a shining example to the rest of us. Achdut — unity — is the word that keeps surfacing, according to our friend and colleague, Jeff Finkelstein, President and CEO.

And we were not alone. Three weeks after the horrific attack at the Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations, 100 Jewish leaders from across the continent were present for a day of briefings and an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the local community. The group, which included national and local representatives from Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Family Services, discussed the tragedy, lessons learned and what it all means for Jewish communal life in the future.

Standing together, we were reminded of one of our most important tasks. The day began with a somber welcome from Meryl Ainsman, Chair of the Board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We want to provide you all with the inspiration you need to do whatever you need to do in your cities to prepare for complete and utter devastation,” she said. “If you haven’t started thinking about it, please take my advice. Start now.”

Our Secure Community Network (SCN) was on the scene within hours after the massacre. “If I have one message for Jewish Federations,” said Brad Orsini, the community's security director, “it’s train at the highest level and prepare for the worst, but also hope for the best.” Just six weeks before the tragedy, he had worked with the Rabbi and staff at the Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha Synagogue to provide active shooter training. This standard crisis preparedness is offered to all Jewish community organizations by SCN, The Jewish Federations of North America’s homeland security organization. “There is no doubt the training prevented a worse horror,” he said. “People knew what to do.”

Here was tangible evidence of why the collective is so essential to our shared well-being. “This event has changed this community,” said Jeff Finkelstein, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He credits the longstanding relationships he has developed with the leaders of both Jewish and non-Jewish groups as critically important components of their successful response. “These things don’t just happen,” he said. “They happened because we have all worked together for years; and when we pulled together we knew what we had to do for this community. Really, at the end of the day, it was about trust.”

The most moving part of the day was a visit to the spot where the tragic incident occurred. A sanctuary of peace and connection; of Torah and mitzvot; of love and compassion. The brutality of this massacre has stained and marred the serenity of this sanctuary, but it cannot destroy the meaning of this community. In the face of hatred and violence, this community comes together with others from around the world and says: NO – you will not defeat us. We are stronger because we are united.

We must stand by our pledge to maintain this abiding sense of unity and responsibility for one another, even when there isn’t a crisis.  “Achdut is a word we have been using a lot around here. It’s the Hebrew word for unity. And that’s how we feel. Unified with each other and communities around the world,” said Jeff Finkelstein. “Yes, this was a horrible tragedy and we will never forget. But the story of Pittsburgh is one of strength. And we will be stronger moving forward. That I am sure.”

We will continue to build upon this strength and unity, as befits our family of communities, inspired to choose vibrant, transformative life over despair.

Mark Wilf is Chair, Board of Trustees, The Jewish Federations of North America

Jerry Silverman is President & CEO, The Jewish Federations of North America