Rena Sofer, 'Bold and the Beautiful' star and former Pittsburgher, discusses synagogue shooting
Just past 8 a.m. Oct. 27, Emmy-winning actress Rena Sofer was driving home in Southern California after dropping off her daughter when she received a shocking call from a friend.
“He basically said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘I’m fine, why?’” recalled Sofer, known for her role as the intense and enigmatic Quinn Fuller Forrester, a jewelry designer, on the CBS soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
The friend broke the horrific news.
Back in Pittsburgh, where Sofer spent many of her formative years as part of the local Jewish community, a gunman stormed into Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people in a hate crime – the worst attack on Jews in American history.
“When we hear about these shootings and we hear about these mass murders going on, we feel humanity,” Sofer said. “When you all of a sudden hear about it in your home, it becomes deeper and a lot more of an intense feeling.”
Sofer – daughter of the late Martin Sofer, a Conservative rabbi - was born in California. When her parents divorced, Rena Sofer moved with her father and brother, David, to Teaneck, N.J., in 1970; when she was 5, they moved to Western Pennsylvania. They lived in Ambridge, Beaver County; there, Rabbi Sofer led Beth Samuels Jewish Center, after the Aliquippa Jewish Center merged into the congregation.
Every day, the rabbi drove his kids into Squirrel Hill, where Rena Sofer attended Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and Yeshiva Achei Tmimim Schools. She lived here through the end of seventh grade, when her family moved back to New Jersey. A New York agent discovered Sofer when she was a teenager, and she worked in modeling before turning to acting.
The daytime TV veteran won a Best Supporting Actress Daytime Emmy in 1995 for her former role as Lois Cerullo on “General Hospital.”
Memories of her long-ago childhood in Pittsburgh may have grown fuzzy, but Sofer maintains a soft spot and strong fondness for the region. Sofer no longer has family here, but she has friends who still have family living in the region. Pittsburgh often has been called one of the safest cities in America, she said, and that makes the Squirrel Hill shooting even more shocking.
“The thing about Pittsburgh is, I got to grow up in a place when I could run outside as a child, go to a park, and go run a few blocks down the street,” said Sofer, who has appeared in many primetime shows, including “NCIS” and “Ghost Whisperer.”
“For that kind of violence to happen in that kind of community is so repelling for the people in Pittsburgh,” said Sofer, who also has acted in movies including “Keeping the Faith” and “Traffic.” “Those people are about safety and about goodness and about community.”
One of the most poignant things about the shooting, many say, is that some Jewish medical professionals treated gunman Robert Bowers at Allegheny General Hospital. Nurse Ari Mahler wrote a public Facebook post about how he treated Bowers like any other patient, even as he yelled “Death to All Jews!” The post went viral and has more than 265,000 likes.
The medical team’s actions show what Judaism is all about, Sofer said.
“Jewish people throughout history have been persecuted … and face constant hatred and attacks,” she said. “Yet, we’ve always strived to be part of society.”
Jewish law is “very, very clear that you do everything you possibly can to save a human life. … The only time you don’t is when your life is in danger,” Sofer said. “The saving of anyone else’s life becomes more important than religion, than politics, than anything else.”
Sofer’s Jewish faith remains a big part of her life; her younger daughter, Avalon, just had her bat mitzvah at their synagogue in the Los Angeles area. Her older daughter, Rosabel, is in Vienna on a Fulbright Scholarship; she is studying anti-Semitic art.
Rabbi Sofer, who died in 2011 at age 86, attended Yeshiva University in New York and earned doctoral degrees in Jewish history and the Hebrew language. He served in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Rena Sofer’s father was quiet and private, and not a very political person – but, she said he would have mourned deeply after the shooting if he were alive.
“He gave himself for his community,” she said. “Beyond that … I would hope that maybe (the shooting) would have impassioned him to be more of an activist in his community as opposed to just a spiritual leader.”
One of Sofer’s favorite poems – “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by John Donne – describes her feelings about the Pittsburgh tragedy. The verses – including “No man is an island, entire of himself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” - remind us that we are all connected as human beings, she said.
The American gun-violence epidemic is out of control, and elected officials must do something to reduce it, said Sofer, who criticized President Trump for nationalist rhetoric that divides people. Nobody wants to take all guns, but we need more restrictive gun laws to, for instance, make it harder for dangerous people to get weapons, she said.
“I feel like the thing that I’m taking the most from Pittsburgh is … it’s incredibly clear that we in this country are in a place where it’s in our hands,” Sofer said. “We have the power to be able to stand up and say no.”
Hopefully, the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy teaches us “that we are all Americans, and we have to be there for each other,” she said. “It’s OK to have different ideals … but it’s not OK to destroy each other and kill each other.”
Kellie B. Gormly is a freelance writer.