Remember the Tree of Life

Remember the Tree of Life

What it was like to grow up in Pittsburgh, and what it’s like to be Jewish there now

Eric Weis, left, with Irwin Harris at an FJMC convention. If Mr. Harris had not gone to the Shabbat retreat, he would have been at the Tree of Life when the massacre happened.
Eric Weis, left, with Irwin Harris at an FJMC convention. If Mr. Harris had not gone to the Shabbat retreat, he would have been at the Tree of Life when the massacre happened.

One year ago, our lives changed. The word Pittsburgh now carries a connotation which did not exist before October 27, 2018. But I want to go back a bit further — to a time, 60 years ago, when I lived in Penn’s Woods, the sylvan forests that grace the Appalachian geosyncline.

I lived among massive trees, in the strip mine wilds of Center County, Pennsylvania. Our hamlet was called Pine Glen. Trees were rooted in everyone’s existence in those hills. They provided the life, the shelter, in which wildlife grew in abundance. It fed the rural poor, who even in the mid-20th century had to hunt in order to survive. Bear, deer, elk, squirrel — all were staples in the diet. I saw this as a 6-year-old. I knew that trees were life itself.

In 1960, my family moved to the big city, Pittsburgh. Even in an urban environment, trees were everywhere, on hillsides, in ravines, and in parks. Ohio may be the Buckeye State, but western Pennsylvania is littered with buckeyes (a tree or shrub related to the horse chesnut). Trees were there, in the place where, two centuries ago, George Washington, as a young colonel in the British army, hid in the forest and bushwhacked French forces. Trees provided life but they also could bring death.

In Pittsburgh, I spent time in several synagogues. One was Tree of Life. It seemed like such an appropriate name for the place with so many trees. Tree of Life is in Squirrel Hill, the Jewish community of my youth, and of my heart.

Over the last six decades, I’ve also lived in Maine and New Jersey, but my formative years were in Pittsburgh. It is where I grew up, and it’s where I spent half my life in business. It is where, to this day, I have very close friends in the Pittsburgh region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. Men and women who are part of Tree of Life.

Around here, in New Jersey, I wear a Steelers cap. Since last October, though, I have been wearing a FJMC Pittsburgh Tri-State Region kippah. I now have a black shirt with a special Steelers logo, created last year in the aftermath of the massacre at Tree of Life. It says, “Stronger Than Hate.” That was the response of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community — and of all of Iron City.

One year ago, the entire Jewish people endured the Pittsburgh massacre. Eleven of our brothers and sisters lost their lives, al kiddush Hashem. Through my FJMC brothers, I knew one of the victims…and also survivors, of which there are many. Their tale of survival is not well known, but it should be. I want to make this experience, this tragedy, as personal for others, as it is for me. I want to describe the Pittsburgh in which I grew up in the 1960s.

Tree of Life synagogue is at the intersection of Wilkins and Shady avenues, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. It is a small area, no more than a mile or so long. One block from Shady is Murray Avenue. If you walked down Murray, you would swear that you were walking down Cedar Lane in Teaneck. It’s bigger, but it has the same tam. The same taste.

Shady Avenue runs over to Shadyside, the neighborhood where I went to elementary school, about half a mile away from Tree of Life. I did not attend Tree of Life, but most of my friends’ b’nai mitzvahs happened there in 1964. Mine was at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue about a mile west on Forbes Avenue. Forbes is an avenue lined with the mansions built by the coal and steel magnates. One of them was turned into a synagogue.

Forbes Avenue led to Forbes Field, the baseball park where the Pittsburgh Pirates stunned the Yankees in October 1960. That’s also the street where the old Jewish Y was, until it moved uphill to Murray Avenue in the 1980s. This was home. We all mixed — blue-collar steelworkers’ kids, Carnegie Tech faculty kids, black kids from the Homewood and East Liberty hoods, and professional and academic families from the Oakland University district next to Squirrel Hill.

In the 1960s, Jews were thoroughly integrated into Pittsburgh. The city was a center of Reform Jewish life, driven, perhaps, by the wealth of the coal and steel industries that made Pittsburgh a center of the industrial revolution. The local Jewish rag merchants, the Kaufmans, had a country residence known as Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Andrew Carnegie’s architect designed the grand reform Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland — a place massive enough to accommodate huge services in the aftermath of last October’s massacre.

And then came October 27, 2018.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer became a reality last year. Who shall live, who shall die. Who by fire, who by water. Who by gunfire, who by rocket fire. Last year at this time, about 500 rockets had rained down on Israel, the greatest barrage in four years. It happened near where my daughter was living, in Be’er Sheva.

In our time, the Jewish people are under attack again. Everywhere.

But last year, there also was a miracle in Pittsburgh, a tale of survival. On the weekend of October 27, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs held a Shabbat retreat in West Virginia. Dozens of my brothers were enjoying a retreat away from home. Some of them were not in Tree of Life that morning. Their wives stayed home too. Ordinarily, there would have been more early morning shulgoers. But not that Saturday morning.

FJMC retreats are held every two years, on irregular dates. What were the chances that on that particular weekend congregants would not be in shul that day? But, by the hand of God, some of my friends, their wives, and their kids were not killed that morning.

The week before, Dor Hadash (one of three kehillot situated in the Tree of Life building) had hosted a large bar mitzvah. Several hundred people were on hand, many arriving early. Had the Pittsburgh shooter acted just one week earlier, the number of murdered victims would have been more like the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. On March 15, 2019, the loss of life there was greater — 51 dead and 49 wounded.

Who shall die, who shall live. Untaneh Tokef. Pittsburgh is just another chapter, followed by Poway on April 27, and last month, Halle in Germany, on Yom Kippur.

Five months from now, we will observe Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 during Pesach, 76 years ago. With assaults on synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway, and now at Halle, who can ignore the parallels with 80 years ago?

There is a remembrance program for the Holocaust — the Yom HaShoah Yellow Candle. This year, synagogues and communities all over the world will light yellow candles for victims of the Shoah, and for those who perished in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Halle. The Yellow Candle program has a tagline. “Light One Candle, Preserve A Memory.” At vigils held in many places this year, 11 candles have been lit, one for each of the 11 Pittsburgh victims. I want to say a little about each of them.

Joyce Libman Fienberg, 75, was in the Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She lived at 537 North Neville St. Why do I mention a street address? Because Joyce would have been my across-the-street neighbor, if I still lived in my family’s apartment at 552 North Neville.

Richard Joseph Gottfried, 65, came from Ross Township in the North Hills of Pittsburgh.

Rose G. Mallinger, 97, lived in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. Steve Neustein is a past president of FJMC’s Tri-State region and my dear friend. He went to Steelers games with her nephew. They both knew her as Aunt Rose.

Dr. Jerry P. Rabinowitz, 66, came from Wilkinsburg, a suburb just east of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel on the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.

Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, were two brothers, both with special needs. They were the ushers who always greeted everyone on Shabbat. They were the first to be killed. Cecil and David lived at the southern boundary of Squirrel Hill, just near the Penn-Lincoln Parkway and tunnel entrance.

Bernice R. Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86, lived in Wilkinsburg. They were married at Tree of Life in 1956. They both died there.

Daniel A. Stein, 71, was a member of FJMC and president of the men’s club of New Light Congregation, one of three kehillot housed at Tree of Life Synagogue. He lived in Squirrel Hill. Many of us in FJMC knew Dan, zichrona livrahah.

Melvin Wax, 88, was a pillar of New Light Congregation. He was leading services when he was gunned down. Mel also lived in Squirrel Hill.

Irving Herbert Younger, 69, lived in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, just uphill from the former site of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Works. J&L was Pittsburgh’s last steel mill. It closed in 1998. As a kid, I remember seeing its slag heaps glow in the night darkness. It did not occur to me then that German Jews in 1938 saw the same kind of glow as their synagogues burned. So did the Jews of Sderot, Ashkelon, and Be’er Sheva at this time last year, as rockets exploded all around them.

These were the 11 victims at Tree of Life. May their memories be for a blessing for Klal Yisrael. May you feel the personal connection to each and every one of them. They are extensions of the six million.

But like the Tree of Life, we live on. The last part of this story, like Torah parshiyot, should end on a positive note. The Calvary Episcopal Church on Wilkins Avenue has rallied in support of Tree of Life. The abundance of their caring volunteers has been overwhelming. Recently, approvals have been granted for Tree of Life to become an education center. The Holocaust Center once at the Pittsburgh JCC on Murray Avenue will be relocated to Tree of Life. The Pittsburgh Jewish community, and all of Iron City, are living proof that we are #StrongerThanHate

Am Yisrael Chai.

Eric Weis of Wayne has been the president of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs New Jersey Region and now is on the boards of FJMC, Mercaz USA, and the American Zionist Movement.

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