Community resilience and performing acts of kindness are at the forefront as the Jewish community in Pittsburgh prepares its youth for the upcoming trial in the 2018 synagogue shooting.
The Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at the Squirrel Hill synagogue that housed the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations killed 11 worshipers and wounded six people. The long-delayed trial of the accused perpetrator is set to begin with jury selection on April 24.
As the city’s still-grieving Jewish community nears the trial, schools and other local organizations are increasing security measures, relying on the strength of the community and prioritizing the mental health of children and youth.
The trial comes at a time when the country is seeing an increase in antisemitic activities. A 2022 audit by the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] showed a 36% increase in antisemitic incidents from the previous year. Nearly 3,700 antisemitic incidents took place in 2022, the highest since ADL began tracking them in 1979.
Avi Baran Munro, head of school at Community Day School, and Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, head of school at Yeshiva Schools, said schools should have age-appropriate conversations around antisemitism and other forms of xenophobia. Yeshiva and Community Day School offer curriculums that teach students about the Holocaust and other forms of genocide in middle school and high school.
“The younger kids, you have to be on the lookout for it and be ready to engage in a conversation if that happens, but the upper elementary and high school, you need to talk about it,” said Rosenblum.
Beyond educating students and securing buildings, schools and organizations are planning to respond to the trial by spurring acts of kindness and beauty.
Balancing difficult conversations with students’ mental health
Ayala Rosenthal, teen member engagement and partnerships coordinator at Friendship Circle, said they don’t want to bring up conversations about the trial or shooting, but rather they hope to act as a listening ear when those conversations arise. Friendship Circle is a program aimed at creating a more inclusive community for people of diverse abilities and interests.
“That doesn’t mean promising safety,” Rosenthal said, “… but just being the space that teens know they can come to express their frustration and to express their anger and to express their nervousness.”
Erin Barr, director of youth services at Jewish Family and Community Services [JFCS] and clinical coordinator at Upstreet Pittsburgh, said the trial may exacerbate feelings of anxiety or trigger memories of the shooting among teens. Upstreet Pittsburgh, the teen mental health division of JFCS, has hired trauma therapists to work with people, including teens, directly or indirectly involved in the shooting.
Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said the trial could retraumatize people and talking about the shooting and its trial should be handled in a sensitive way.
The 10.27 Healing Partnership, a resiliency center formed by a group of federal, city government and local community organizations after the shooting, is working on preparing school staff on recognizing and addressing signs of retraumatization, he added.
Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, said it was important to educate students about the shooting and the importance of being kind.
“It’s important, when we all feel the horrors of this event, to educate ourselves on what is it that causes people to feel like they have to choose hate,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with grievance of feeling isolated or marginalized in our society.”
The 10.27 Healing Partnership along with Repair the World Pittsburgh organized a community gardening program on April 18. The program focused on service and healing through connection with each other and the earth ahead of the upcoming trial. The event is part of a series called Chai Chai V’kayam that refers to the sentiment of celebrating ongoing community resilience and care for one another. (Photos by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)
Teaching children and youth to be kind
Some schools are encouraging their students to do good deeds — be it bake for a lonely neighbor or visit an elderly person — and show compassion to people in the community.
Munro said the Community Day School follows an annual tradition of spreading kindness, empathy and comfort to commemorate the day of the synagogue shooting. The school has similar plans for the trial, engaging students to create illustrations and art with messaging around the theme of kindness, she added.
“Our plan is to create something beautiful that can be shared at the courthouse with the families of victims and survivors who will be spending a lot of very difficult, emotional time over the course of the trial,” said Munro.
Rosenblum said Yeshiva Schools are emphasizing increasing acts of kindness with the belief that “a little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.”
He said students from Yeshiva Schools regularly go out in the community, handing out cards with messages of goodwill. Students also visit senior citizens and hospitals and the school will try to encourage such acts as they near the trial, he said.
Tight security will be in place
Many local organizations and schools are amping up security measures as the trial approaches.
Hertzman said the Jewish Federation provides community security in three areas. First is their ongoing effort to secure buildings within the community. The second is building effective communication lines among security directors at various institutions. The third is providing training to act when there is a threat.
While the Jewish Federation does not anticipate any threat at present, they want to be prepared as the trial could attract supporters for the defendant.
Rosenblum and Munro said that while their schools already have rigorous security procedures, they are working with the Jewish Federation and the local police to increase security.
Yeshiva Schools have increased lockdown protocols for each building.
Rivkee Rudolph, director of Friendship Circle, said they regularly consult Shawn Brokos, the Jewish Federation’s director of community security, and train all staff in CPR, lockdowns and active shooter drills.
The Pittsburgh community brings hope
Feinstein said the 10.27 Healing Partnership is planning a campaign that shows solidarity and she anticipates people from the community reaching out and offering help. “It’s amazing that other people see the horror of the trauma and say, ‘What can I do to show that I’m with you?’” she said.
Rosenthal said she thinks many teens will find parts of the trial, such as hearing trialgoers talk about details, hard to process but she is relying on the Jewish community to be there for each other during the course of the trial.
Sydne Ballengee was a senior in high school when the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happened — the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the country’s history. Now a senior at the University of Miami, Ballengee is worried that the trial might incite more antisemitic incidents.
Ballengee recalls how she found strength within the community after the shooting. Her non-Jewish friends from school offered her support and helped raise funds for charity. She hopes that the community will come together again when the trial commences.
“Every single person came together no matter their beliefs, no matter their religions. …Pittsburgh is just such a tight-knit community,” she said. “I hope that will continue especially as the trial unfolds.”
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Betul Tuncer.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.