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October 29, 2018 10:31 pm

Pittsburgh’s Jewish Schools Seek Understanding, Healing After Synagogue Massacre

avatar by Shiri Moshe and Ben Cohen

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A thank you card to police from students at the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. Photo: Shiri Moshe / The Algemeiner.

On Monday afternoon, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto stood outside the independent Jewish Community Day School (CDS) deep in conversation with a small gathering of staff and parents. In the two days since gunman Robert Bowers massacred 11 worshippers and wounded six others at the Tree of Life synagogue, Peduto told the group, he had seen “a real outpouring of love that’s out there.”

“It’s all directions,” Peduto remarked. “It’s the support of the Jewish community from every community, this is everyone pouring in.”

For the four Jewish day schools serving this city’s community of just under 50,000, Monday was the first opportunity for teachers and students to sit together and try and make sense of last Shabbat’s atrocity. Mayor Peduto’s point about the unity of Pittsburgh’s diverse communities in the face of a hate crime that marked “the darkest day” in the city’s history — as well as the deadliest antisemitic attack on a Jewish community in the United States — was reinforced in their classrooms.

“In general, we feel like Pittsburgh is a really safe place to live,” Mark Minkus, who heads the middle school at CDS, explained to The Algemeiner. But that sense of security was brutally interrupted by the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, as demonstrated by the words of a student who spoke at a huge community vigil on Sunday night. “She said, ‘I’m a different Jew than I was yesterday,’ which really struck me,” Minkus reflected. “I think that everyone’s world changed on Saturday, and this safe haven experienced something it had never experienced before. That has certainly been shocking not just for the kids, but for the adults who live and work in the community as well.”

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On Tuesday morning, the eighth grade students at CDS will lead a remembrance vigil at the impressive Holocaust memorial that sits across the street from their school. The “Keeping Tabs” sculpture takes the shape of the Star of David, and is made of glass blocks filled with six million aluminum “tabs” collected and counted by CDS students over nearly a decade — the perfect location for what Minkus called “a show of solidarity and unity against all forms of hate in the world.” Indeed, studying the Holocaust has helped older students to contextualize Saturday’s attack. “We have difficult conversations all the time, the students are used to it,” said Jackie Goldbloom, a middle school teacher at CDS who leads the Holocaust curriculum.

Still, the emphasis as the school day began on Monday was a return to normalcy as quickly as possible. Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal and education director at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, said he was encouraging his students “to learn, to pray, to do acts of kindness for people who might need it, and to keep going.”

With the younger children especially, Weinberg elected not to emphasize the antisemitic nature of the attack, symbolized by Bowers’ blood-curdling cry of “All Jews must die” as he opened fire on worshippers.

“I don’t think they could understand it,” he explained. “You don’t want kids to feel scared to be Jewish.”

Weinberg added: “I discussed the flip side, that just like there are people who hate us because we’re Jewish, there people love us because we’re Jewish, and we’re all one family.”

Weinberg said the students had made cards for the police officers, first responders, nurses, and doctors — as well as for 70-year-old Daniel Leger, a nurse and hospital chaplain who was critically injured in the attack.

“He lives right there,” Weinberg said, pointing toward a nearby window. “We are just ready to hear what people need.”

Pittsburgh’s Jews have always been proud of the tolerance that prevails in their community, and that has been an additional source of strength for teachers and students. “It’s a remarkably unique community, with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox intermingling, I don’t think you find it anywhere else,” Rabbi Yossi Rosenbloom, education director at the Chabad-affiliated Yeshiva Schools told The Algemeiner as he stood in the school’s bustling hallway. “I think we all realize that the attack wasn’t against one denomination, it was against being Jewish.”

A Pittsburgh native himself, Rosenbloom is proud that his school continues to thrive 75 years after its creation. One of the Tree of Life victims, 87-year-old Melvin Wax, was among the original crop of students that attended the school, he noted.

“I’m aware that there are a lot of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Pennsylvania, but I never imagined that this would happen — never,” Rosenbloom remarked. Yet he is adamant that the school’s spirit, and that of the community more broadly, won’t be broken. “The kids have been great,” he smiled. “But we do want to get back to normal.”

Until that day comes, Pittsburgh’s Jews can count on the solidarity of the outside world. In the halls of the Hillel Academy, Noa and Eliraz — two Israeli teenagers who are currently spending a year with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community  —  were preparing cards for the police officers and first responders wounded on Saturday, as well as coordinating messages of support from around the globe.

“We asked people in Israel to send a picture of themselves with the sign, ‘We are with you Pittsburgh,'” Eliraz explained, “and we got more than 4,000 photos in response.”

She said that Saturday’s attack had taken her by surprise.

“We thought here it was a nice and quiet place,” Eliraz said. “It’s crazy. It can happen anywhere, no one can know.”

“The difference between Israel and here, is that here they’re not used to it,” Noa said. “They need the support from Israel, from all around the world, so we’re trying to help them.”

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