A Year Later, How the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Is Reeling

A therapist and a journalist recall how the local Jewish community responded to the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. The second of two special reports

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Demonstrators hug at an anti-gun vigil held in Pittsburgh this week in honor of the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. October 2019
Demonstrators hug at an anti-gun vigil held in Pittsburgh this week in honor of the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. October 2019Credit: Jared Kohler
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

PITTSBURGH — The first phone call came early on Saturday morning. It was October 27, 2018, and Jordan Golin was at home hoping to enjoy an uneventful weekend with his family. Golin, the CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh, was surprised to see a senior staff member contacting him shortly after 10 A.M.

What she had to say was unimaginable.

“She said that she just received a call from one of our workers, whose husband has a hobby of listening to police scanners, and that he had heard there was a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue,” Golin told Haaretz last week.

Jordan Golin, the CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services of PittsburghCredit: Jared Kohler

A few minutes later, his phone rang again. On the line was the president of the Tree of Life congregation. “He’s a clinical psychologist and we had worked together for years,” Golin said. “He called to tell me that there was a shooting in the building, and that he was personally okay, but that they were going to need our help.”

Golin’s organization, which has 80 employees, is the largest mental health and social services provider in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. While it doesn’t work exclusively in that community, it receives support from the city’s Jewish institutions and is considered the go-to address for social services and mental health issues.

“We deal with many different kinds of challenges in our daily work, but on that morning we were being asked to deal with something we had never experienced before,” Golin said.

While he was processing the information and preparing to leave his house, Golin received a third phone call, from another worker at his organization. She told him that her husband was inside the Tree of Life building when the shooting took place – and she couldn’t contact him.

“All of this happened within less than 15 minutes,” Golin recalled. Haaretz’s interview with him took place at a café in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a short walk from the Tree of Life building. A year after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, Golin spoke at length on how his organization dealt with the trauma inflicted on an entire community – and on potential lessons for other Jewish communities across America.

On that morning, he said, there was “very little time to think or analyze things. We had to take action, fast.” From his home he drove to the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, around half a mile from the attack.

“The JCC quickly became the information hub for people from the community who were seeking help of all sorts. It’s a logical place for people to gather, and it’s right at the heart of the neighborhood. But when we got there, I wasn’t sure what exactly we were going to do.”

An memorial sign in a Pittsburgh shop naming the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last year. October 27, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

In regular times, Golin’s organization, known in Pittsburgh as the JFCS, works on issues ranging from helping immigrants and refugees to offering clinical treatment and assistance to families and individuals. Golin himself is a clinical psychologist who has been living and working in Pittsburgh for more than two decades. The year since that October morning has been the most challenging of his professional life.

“Gradually, families began to gather at the JCC. The FBI was there, the local police, people from Jewish organizations, and also our staff. We started reaching out to colleagues, psychologists and therapists in the Pittsburgh area who have experience in dealing with trauma,” he said.

“We turned several rooms in the JCC into private spaces for people seeking help to speak with therapists and counselors. All around us, meanwhile, was a sense of organized chaos. There were police interviews, relatives looking for information about people who were inside the building, journalists trying to gain information. Everything was being organized on the fly.”

At around 11 P.M. that Saturday, more than 12 hours after the three phone calls that started Golin’s day, the names of the victims were made public.

“The husband of our staffer who was inside the synagogue was injured and taken to the hospital, and he survived,” Golin said. “There were 11 people who were murdered, which meant there were now families grieving over their loved ones and in need of support and comfort. And then, beyond that first circle of grief, there was an entire community under attack, feeling vulnerable and experiencing trauma.”

A totally different newspaper

That morning, Toby Tabachnick, a reporter for The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, was stuck at home with a high fever. Tabachnick has been covering the Pittsburgh Jewish community for more than a decade; because her newspaper doesn’t work on Shabbat, she was planning to rest and get back her strength.

Entrance to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, currently closed to its congregation, October 23, 2019Credit: Jared Kohler

But those plans were upended when she received a phone call from her son, who was in Ohio. “He had just heard the news,” Tabachnick said. “He told me, Mom, there’s been a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.”

Tabachnick said she and her colleagues didn’t have much time to find their bearings. “Things became completely insane for us in a very short period of time,” she recalled.

“Our newspaper goes to press once a week, on Tuesday. Usually on Saturday we already have most of the articles and news stories ready for publication. Ironically, that specific week we were actually planning a special party issue with feature stories like ‘best spots to have your wedding.’ Of course, all of those stories had to be put aside; we weren’t going to print any of them. We had 48 hours to put out a totally different paper – focusing on a terrible massacre that hit our own community.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle is a small newspaper, and at the time it employed only two full-time reporters. Suddenly it was tasked with covering an incident that within hours became the biggest news story in the world.

“We watched the entire international news media descend on Squirrel Hill. There were national U.S. television crews, international newspapers. Our friends and neighbors were suddenly being interviewed on CNN,” Tabachnick said, recounting the hours and days after the attack. In the midst of it all, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would come to Pittsburgh for a consolation visit – and soon local Jewish residents announced they would march in protest.

“We were working nonstop to make it to the print deadline,” Tabachnick said. “We decided early on that we weren’t going to try and compete with the national media. Instead, we decided to just focus on the facts – what had happened, who were the people that our community lost, what was going to happen now.”

One of the hardest parts of covering the massacre was collecting and verifying information about each of the 11 victims; the newspaper decided not to contact the families directly. “They were grieving, planning funerals, and we were not going to distract them at that sensitive moment,” Tabachnick said.

“But we still had to print biographical details about each and every one of the victims. This required a lot of work. We contacted friends, neighbors, work colleagues. The Pittsburgh Jewish community is unique, it’s a community where a lot of times you truly feel that everybody knows one another.”

Unexpected help from Israel

Jordan Golin got very little sleep Saturday night. On Sunday morning he was back at the JCC. The city’s main Jewish organizations had a meeting in the building and crafted what he calls a game plan. The local Jewish Federation was in charge of handling the media, political and financial aspects of the crisis. The JCC kept its role as the local “family assistance center.” Golin’s organization, Jewish Family and Community Services, was in charge of helping the community address the mental health challenges.

“Saturday was a very hectic day; there was no time to plan anything,” he said. “But on Sunday we began to really build a plan for all the different issues we were facing. So there were the families who lost their loved ones and were grieving. There were the workers of the local chevra kadisha [burial society] who took care of the bodies at the scene, and the workers at the funeral homes who had to take care of 11 funerals.

“There were children in all age groups who were going to return to school on Monday after witnessing the events of this weekend. And there were many people in the community who were in need of help. We had to start dealing with each and every one of these challenges.”

More than 200 therapists in the Pittsburgh area and beyond volunteered to assist the community in the days after the shooting, Golin says. His organization vetted them one by one and assigned them meeting hours with members of the community. He estimates that hundreds of people used those hours in the weeks after the attack. “We were very fortunate to receive that support,” he said.

Jordan Golin, the CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services of PittsburghCredit: Jared Kohler

Another important source of help arrived from an unexpected place: Israel. “While we were at the JCC, I got a call from Israel Nitzan, the deputy consul general of Israel in New York,” Golin recalled. “He asked me if there was anything the consulate could help us with, and I said I honestly didn’t know the answer. I told him no one in our organization had ever handled a situation like this before. We were open to any ideas or suggestions.”

Nitzan suggested to connect Golin with the Israel Trauma Coalition, a collaboration of social workers and therapists who are experts in trauma. The organization was founded in 2002 at the height of the second intifada, when mass-casualty terror attacks were happening in Israel every week. Shortly after his call with Nitzan, Golin was on the phone speaking to the organization’s CEO in Israel, Talia Levanon.

“She was incredibly helpful,” Golin said. “She told me what communities can benefit from in this situation. She offered practical ideas that we could begin to implement. We didn’t have a framework, and the ITC helped us build one. They had a playbook for this situation, and that made a big difference.”

A few days later, the Israel Trauma Coalition also sent a delegation of therapists from Israel to Pittsburgh. “Their most important contribution, in my opinion, was that they helped train the helpers,” Golin said. “They spoke with members of our staff, with rabbis and with other people who were in a position to help others about the best ways to do so.”

The Israeli government’s response to the Pittsburgh attack was received with mixed feelings in the city’s Jewish community. Many in the community were unhappy that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, accompanied Trump in his visit to the city and even welcomed the president as he landed in Pittsburgh – an unusual gesture for a representative of a foreign country.

Golin doesn’t want to discuss the political aspects of the relationship but says that professionally he was very grateful for the Israeli therapists’ help. “With time, it felt like we were getting a better hold of the situation and learning how to do our job in the best way possible. But in the first days after the attack, we were lucky to have their experience and wisdom helping to guide us.”

Closer together as a community

Tabachnick and her colleagues spent the days after the attack collecting every bit of information they could. It was difficult from a professional standpoint, but also from an emotional one. “What happened to our community on that day also happened to us,” she said. “This was not a regular news story. This was an attack on our community, our people.”

The first funerals took place on Tuesday, three days after the shooting. More than 1,500 people came to pay respects to the brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were laid to rest at Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue a little over a mile from the Tree of Life building.

The reporters covering these events, Tabachnick said, “didn’t have to process all of that, at least not in the beginning. We were just working and working.” Golin also notes a conversation with a news photographer he saw at several funerals after the attack who confessed that it was “extremely difficult” to cover the events.

Golin and Tabachnick both say they believe the attack led to big changes in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. Tabachnick mentions two specific changes – the first being a growing focus on security. “There is a general sense that the community is much more aware of these issues. You see it almost everywhere – in synagogues, schools and other institutions,” she said.

“I also think this trauma has brought us closer as a community. This was always a close community, one where you don’t see huge gaps between people from different denominations. And I think in the aftermath of the attack, people began making even more of an effort to understand each other, support each other, work together.”

Golin agrees, saying that “tragedies many times bring communities together. But we were also told early on that many times there is a trajectory after these events. In the beginning, everyone gets closer and there is a lot of mutual support. Over time, people become tired, and some look for more privacy to process what happened. Our approach is to be patient, give people space, but let everyone know that we are an address for anyone in the community who needs help.”

Golin says he has marked the year since the attack through a series of milestones. “We made it through the first days, and then the first month, and then Passover,” he said. “Now we just passed the High Holy Days. We had staff in synagogues throughout this holiday period, and we also used therapy dogs in one synagogue where many members of the Tree of Life are now praying.”

Jewish Family and Community Services also has one staff member whose sole responsibility is to constantly support the families who lost their loved ones in the attack.

The next milestone, he says, are the days after the 27th, after the community marks one year since the attack. The media attention will dwindle, the ceremonies will end, but for many people in the community, life won’t go back to normal, at least not in the near future.

“The number one lesson I take from this year is that if you want to effectively respond to a crisis, you need to have strong relationships in your community before that crisis happens,” Golin concluded. “We learned during this year how much the good relationships we built over the years – within our community and more broadly in the city of Pittsburgh – were so important once the crisis happened. Things would have been very different without those relationships.”

Tabachnick, for her part, sees another potential lesson – one related to Israel. “I personally think we can perhaps learn some lessons from Israel on how to rise from an attack like this,” she said. “How to forge ahead. There is a notion in Israel that after an attack, people get up and keep going, because you have to. It’s harder for us to do that, and perhaps there is merit in trying to learn from the Israeli approach.”