Political climate informs, shapes remembrance of synagogue shooting victims 

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor-Elect

Oct. 27, 2020 will mark two years since Robert Bowers entered a synagogue in Squirrel Hill where he shot and killed 11 people from three different congregations: Joyce Fienberg, Rose Mallinger, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon and Irving Younger of the Tree of Life Congregation; Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Melvin Wax of the New Light Congregation; and Jerry Rabinowitz of Congregation Dor Hadash. 

But as groups across the city come together to honor the victims two years after the Squirrel Hill massacre, there is an unmistakable emphasis on political activism both in the Pittsburgh and Point Park communities. 

On Sunday Oct. 25, Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, Bend the Arc Jewish Action: Pittsburgh and CeaseFirePA are hosting an event, In Memoriam 2020, which is calling for participants to remember victims of gun violence and to “demand change,” according to the event’s description. 

The event is one of several involving the 10.27 Healing Partnership, an organization devoted to commemorating the victims of the October massacre. Featured speakers will include local religious leaders, local community activists and even Parkland shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg among others. The memoriam event will be held virtually on Facebook Live due to the coronavirus pandemic, and afterwards people are invited to volunteer in a Voter Engagement Phonebank or a Gun Safety Candidate Phonebank. 

For Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization originally founded in February 2019 by members of Congregation Dor Hadash and the wider Squirrel Hill community, this is one of many planned activities they are holding ahead of the 2020 general election. According to its founders, membership has extended beyond Squirrel Hill to southwestern Pennsylvania and is a partner of the nonprofit organization CeaseFirePA, which works with a network of local gun safety advocacy groups. 

“Our mission is to pass better gun safety legislation so that tragedies like what happened to our congregation don’t happen to other people in the future,” said Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence Policy Director Dana Kellerman, 55, of Fox Chapel.  

While Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence has made strides in recruiting members and community outreach, legislators at the state and federal levels are stonewalling the organization’s ultimate goal of seeing gun safety legislation passed. As policy director, Kellerman follows the progress of state and national gun legislation. 

“There has not been a single good gun bill passed in the state of Pennsylvania since the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. There has not actually been a floor vote on any good piece of gun legislation,” Kellerman said. “In the interim, the legislature has tried to expand ‘gun rights.’ They have tried to enable people to open carry weapons during public health and other emergencies. They have worked to block towns and cities in the state—who want to make their citizens safer—from being able to do that.”

Kellerman works along with two other members of a steering committee at Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, Eve Wider and Dr. Carolyn Ban. 

Dr. Ban, 77, of Squirrel Hill is a retired professor from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, is an active member of Congregation Dor Hadash and is a founder of Squirrel Hill Against Gun Violence. As the election falls within a week of the anniversary of the shooting, Dr. Ban said that much has changed for her and the momentum behind the organization. 

“And I realize looking back, the 2018 election right after [the shooting], and it’s a blur. I don’t remember very much of that time,” Dr. Ban said. “Now of course, we are very energized and we are very motivated and we are very organized and we are working very hard to do everything we can to change the political scene.”

The main priorities for Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence in this election cycle are backing candidates in flippable districts who are in favor of universal background checks and Extreme Risk Protection Orders (EPROs), otherwise known as red flag laws, that would allow guns to temporarily be confiscated from individuals who are likely to harm themselves or the people around them. They are also prioritizing candidates who support a limit on purchases on high capacity magazines, a ban on assault style weapons and laws on the safe storage of firearms. 

As the date of the anniversary of the Squirrel Hill massacre and the upcoming election approach, an upcoming event at Point Park is also seeking to honor victims of gun violence while addressing current political hostility. The event, May Their Memory Be A Blessing, will reflect on the deaths of people in places of worship including the Squirrel Hill massacre, the 2019 mass shooting at Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand and the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 

The virtual event is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 26 at 4:30 p.m. and is being organized by Community Coordinator of Spiritual Life Pastor Jennifer McCurry and sophomore cinema production major Riley Crow. 

“We like to think of our sacred spaces as being safe. The language of sanctuary is now used to talk about things that are so much beyond faith life, what it means to have sanctuary space for people like refugees,” Pastor McCurry said. “So we want to think about those places as places of regeneration and support and care and life and not places of death or the cause of grief. You might go to grieve, trusting that there’s hope in life that comes in the midst of that grief, but you don’t want to go in and feel like you might be threatened.”

While there will be a space for grieving and focusing on the present hatred against some marginalized communities, Pastor McCurry said that the goal is also to inspire hope among students in these difficult times. 

“One of the traditional Jewish sayings is ‘may their memory be a blessing.’ It’s strung throughout some of their prayers and ritual traditions,” Pastor McCurry said. “And so that’s the title of our discussion, May Their Memory Be A Blessing. So, what does it mean for the memory of the dead and the memory of this pain that we all share? What does it mean for that to actually be a blessing? And how does it inform us and strengthen us and show us to have enough hope together?” 

Riley Crow said he and Pastor McCurry started collaborating together when he approached her about creating an organization for Jewish students on campus.

Crow said he hopes that the event reaches a lot of different groups of students in a stand of solidarity against hate. For Crow, the event is especially important as the October massacre had a profound impact on his life. Crow, who was raised in a secular Jewish family in Pittsburgh and then re-converted back to the Jewish faith, was inspired to do so because of the synagogue shooting in 2018. 

“And so that connection I felt when that happened, it inspired me to go to a synagogue and talk to a rabbi,” Crow said. “I went through a year and a half of study in the synagogue and everything just to catch up with the years I lost as a kid.” 

Both Pastor McCurry and Crow strongly encouraged students to vote and to be informed on the candidates.

“I do think political activism is important, and sometimes that’s as boring as writing your legislator, which does not feel very satisfying. It’s much more fun to go to a demonstration, and those are important too,” Pastor McCurry said. “And we’ve seen over the last year how those make a difference and inspire a different kind of public dialogue and inspire officials to make changes that they’ve known would be helpful, but they haven’t felt motivated to do for a while.” 

“I don’t want to blame hatred on politics because no matter who’s the president, who’s in office who’s in power, any local, state, federal government, there’s always going to be hatred. There’s always going to be that disgusting underbelly of this country, where it just festers,” Crow said. “And [it’s] depending on who we are as young students who are going to take this country into our hands. It’s really crucial that we look for candidates who put out that festering hatred, rather than giving it even a second to breathe.” 

You can register for the 2020 Memoriam event here. You can also find the May Their Memory Be A Blessing event at Zoom meeting ID 897 2592 4888 with the passcode memory.