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Jewish community still healing one year after mass shooting

On Oct. 27, 2018, a lone gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and opened fire, killing eleven people. Since then, hundreds more in the US have been killed in mass shootings. NewsHour Weekend went back to Pittsburgh to see how the community is healing and how it’s been affected by other acts of violence around the country. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Today marks one year since a gunman opened fire inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania killing eleven people and injuring six others. In that time, almost 450 more people in the U.S. have been murdered in mass shootings. Last month, Newshour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano returned to Pittsburgh to talk with tree of life survivors about pain, healing, and commemoration.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    September, just a few weeks away from the start of the Jewish new year and the High Holidays. It's the holiest time in the Jewish calendar. But at the Tree of Life building in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, there's very little activity. It's been almost a year since a shooting—the most deadly antisemitic attack in US history—left nearly a dozen people dead. Since then, the building has remained empty, as the congregation renovates and expands the space to create a memorial and education center. But all around Tree of Life and through its windows are signs of a community trying to heal.

  • Laurie Eisenberg:

    And everything you see is something that we pulled in out of the heaps of the flowers.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Laurie Eisenberg is a history professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University and a board member at Tree of Life synagogue. She was part of an effort to preserve the makeshift memorials that sprang up in the wake of the shooting. They now appear in the synagogue windows.

  • Laurie Eisenberg:

    I realized that we're living through a historical event. We needed to make sure that the response of the community, which was so beautiful and unequivocal and warm and powerful, that that gets recorded, and that that stays part of the story.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Another part of that story is told in the fence around the building. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, it was covered by large blue tarps.

  • Laurie Eisenberg:

    We realized that this really kind of dismal, abandoned-looking vista here didn't reflect who we are. And it certainly didn't speak to the characters and the spirit of the victims. And at some point, we realized that those long, blue tarps were like a long, blue canvas. And what do you do with a blank canvas?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Eisenberg and others put the call out online for artwork by students. They received over two hundred submissions from schools all over the country. Many now hang over the fencing around Tree of Life. Over a hundred pieces came from students attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—the site of another mass shooting just eight months before the attack on Tree of Life.

  • Laurie Eisenberg:

    We have been unwillingly and forcibly inducted into a club no one wants to belong to. And you think that's, like, a metaphor, right? And what we've discovered is that it's actually a real, tangible fellowship

  • Michele Rosenthal:

    I've had contact, a lot of contact, with some of the Parkland families. They came up here and you have an instant connection.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Michele Rosenthal says that fellowship has helped her during her mourning process. She lost her brothers—David and Cecil Rosenthal.

  • Michele Rosenthal:

    And when there are other shootings, we reach out to each other because it is a huge trigger.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And there have been many such triggers in the past year. They include the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, and nearly simultaneous shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio in August. Rosenthal says the El Paso shooting was particularly hard for her.

  • Michele Rosenthal:

    I turned on the news, which I probably shouldn't have done, and just watched a woman who was looking for her mother and I just—I relived that day of trying to figure out if my brothers were dead or alive. And it's the worst feeling. There's nothing worse.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In mid-September, Rosenthal appeared with other family members and religious leaders, addressing how Pittsburgh's Jewish community was faring in the runup to the High Holidays.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Its panels included representatives from the three congregations who were housed inside the Tree of Life building: Tree of Life Congregation itself, New Light Congregation, and Congregation Dor Hadash. All three lost members in the shooting. Some spoke of trauma and survivors' guilt.

  • Rabbi Jonathan Perlman:

    I—I go through these scenarios in my mind, as I think a lot of the other victims do too, about, you know, I could have done more, I could have saved people. Why did this person choose to do x, y, and z? Why did they turn the other way? It's part of the trauma, you know? It's part of being human.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As the community entered the first new year since the attack, Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation, said he was feeling anxious.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As we go into the High Holidays, what's on your mind? What are you thinking right now?

  • Stephen Cohen:

    I'm afraid. I'm afraid because the High Holidays are a time of reflection, of introspection, of asking God for forgiveness, and to write us in the Book of Life. How do you relate that to what happened last October? How do you think about your future when you have a past hanging over you?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Mental health professionals serving the community since the attack are trying to help answer those questions. Jordan Golin and Stefanie Small of Jewish Family and Community Services say the people they treat are becoming more emotional as the one-year mark approaches.

  • Stefanie Small:

    Their anxiety is heightened. They're not sleeping. They're becoming more irritable. And a lot of times they don't know why. They don't realize this is a traumatic stress reaction.

  • Jordan Golin:

    People who experienced trauma desperately want to turn the clock back and go back to life as it was before. And the reality is that it's not possible. It's not possible to go back to where we were before. The best that we can hope for is what we call integration, and try to integrate the traumatic experience into our lives, return to a sense of—of normal functioning. But we—what happened, the trauma that we've experienced is a part of our lives. It's something that we're gonna carry with us forever.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Michele Rosenthal says she's anxious about observing the new year without her brothers for the first time. But she wants the focus to remain on them.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    What motivates you to sit down with the media and talk about this?

  • Michele Rosenthal:

    What happened that day—was just so hateful and so horrific and I don't want that to be what the story is about. Instead of this story being about what happened, focusing more on my brothers and how special they were. I want the story to be about all of those lives. They were at the synagogue doing what they loved with the people that were another family to them. And—and that's what I want the focus to be on, is just those beautiful stories. And how much those people cared about each other.

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