Remembering Those Who Perished at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue (Guest Column)

I am a Pittsburgher. I grew up in Squirrel Hill, an amazing, diverse and accepting neighborhood. And Tree of Life, the synagogue that was attacked last weekend, is my synagogue.

To be exact, Tree of Life is a building that houses three different congregations: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light. The huge synagogues that were erected decades ago mainly to accommodate the baby boomer generation are now too large for many congregations to maintain. Therefore, many have come together under one roof to make it sustainable.

I joined Tree of Life years ago when I moved back to Pittsburgh from New York in the late aughts. It was a particularly religious phase of my life and I enjoyed going just about every weekend that I was in town. Everyone there was supportive of my work in music and I felt inspired by the intelligence and creativity of the members.

I would split my time between the intimate service and Torah study that Dor Hadash provided and the slightly larger, though still intimate, service that Tree of Life had. At Dor Hadash, my uncle was a regular, as was his friend, Jerry Rabinowitz, who was always ready with a joke to make everyone laugh. Dan Leger, a family friend, would often lead the service. Dan converted to Judaism many years ago and is more knowledgeable about the religion than most people that were born Jewish.

I would often leave a little early to catch the end of the Tree of Life service, where my dad was. Irving Younger would hand me a prayer book as I came in and he never made me feel guilty for walking in so late. He’d greet everyone with a warm hello. Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal were always there, fixtures of Tree of Life and of the greater Jewish community. The Rabbi would often make a joke with Rose Mallinger, who was much younger than her 97 years would imply. It was a warm congregation of people who loved their community and cherished their Judaism.

Jerry, Irving, Cecil, David, and Rose were all killed this weekend. Dan is in critical condition in the hospital. My childhood friend, Joe Stein, lost his wonderful father, Danny, in the attack. And five others whom I did not get to know tragically lost their lives as well.

When I heard there was an active shooter at Tree of Life, I felt helpless here in Los Angeles. I reached out to family and stay glued to the TV and social media to find out more information. I was incredibly grateful to know that my uncle wasn’t in the building at the time and that my dad was at a different synagogue.

So many things kept running through my head. What if the shooter had chosen the synagogue where my dad was? What if my uncle had been there? What did the shots actually sound like? Is my son safe at his Jewish preschool?

Amidst the concern and sadness, I took my Star of David necklace out from under my shirt to make sure it was visible. Funny how the smallest things can feel like real acts of defiance these days. I am Jewish and I’m proud and I’m not trying to hide it. I stand with everyone else who has been persecuted throughout history.

This isn’t new. We minorities are used to being threatened and attacked. It’s been going on for thousands of years. At times it’s as horrid as what happened this weekend in Pittsburgh, or what happened last week to Vickie Lee Jones and Maurice Stallard, who lost their lives while grocery shopping because they were black.

At other times, the hate is less violent but still frightening. When I was in high school I played basketball for the Jewish Community Center team. When traveling to outside neighborhoods for games, it was not unheard of for people to throw pennies at us on the court or yell derogatory words.

Thankfully, the Jewish people are strong. And the Pittsburgh community is strong. But it’s going to take more than that, because, ultimately, this is not just about a Jewish community in Pennsylvania. Bigotry of any kind affects all of us. These tragedies are happening in all of our communities. If someone hates Jewish people, they likely also hate black people or gay people or latinos or refugees. We need to stand in alliance against this hate. There is an increased strength in togetherness. I’ve got your back. Do you have mine?

Just as the various congregations in the Tree of Life building banded together to survive, so too must we.

Benjy Grinberg is the founder of Rostrum Records and an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.