Menorah lighting outside Tree of Life shows that the light is still on
The Tree of Life Congregation has never done a public menorah lighting.
On the first night of Hanukkah, Jewish families usually stay home and light their own menorahs, said Stacey Hausman, co-president of the sisterhood for Tree of Life Congregation.
But this year, a little more than a month after a gunman killed 11 people there, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers wanted a public symbol.
“For people to see the light was still on,” Hausman said.
“So people can see we’re not going anywhere,” she added. “We’re still here.”
Hanukkah started at sundown on Sunday. The menorah being lit had been donated — Hausman didn’t know by whom.
Joyce Driben knew six of the 11 who were killed. She didn’t make it to services that Saturday morning in October, after being at the symphony the night before and staying up late to watch her hometown Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
But she was outside the synagogue Sunday evening with her congregation. She was not there to mourn, although recalling those lost brought a rush of sadness. She was among many — whether members of the congregations, Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light, or not, Jewish or not — who came to watch the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah.
“It’s time to celebrate,” she said.
And celebrate they did — passing around doughnut holes, holding glow sticks and singing songs outside the building.
“Tonight, we stand in the place where unspeakable hatred devastated our Jewish community just one month ago,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of the New Light Congregation. “We stand together as Jews, and light this candle as a symbol of our faith for all to see. Tonight, we commit to practicing our Jewish faith publicly and proudly. We commit to stamping out antisemitism throughout the country.”
Pittsburgh police Sgt. James Glick served as candle lighter, representing “all of Pittsburgh’s finest,” Myers said. He asked all survivors present who were inside Tree of Life that morning to assist Glick.
“Tonight, we rededicate ourselves to creating a society and a world where hate has no home,” said Ellen Surloff, president of the Dor Hadash congregation. “This Hanukkah, we commit to creating the kind of community where hope and love truly are stronger than hate.
“We invite our friends and allies to bask with us in the menorah’s warm light.”
Mike Kemper, a lifelong Steelers fan, made the five-hour drive from Toronto with his son, Cole, to be at Sunday’s game at Heinz Field. Both Jewish, they stopped by Tree of Life to pay their respects.
Kemper said it was the first time he’s ventured outside of Downtown on a visit to Pittsburgh. He and his son didn’t know the menorah event would be happening.
The shooting “had a big impact on our side of the border as well,” Kemper said. Pittsburgh “has always had a place in my heart. When this happened, it was really difficult to comprehend.
“In many ways it’s a pause for reflection,” he said of Hanukkah this year. “You just have to carry on. Antisemitism has been very big everywhere for a very long time. You can’t stop living your life and being Jewish because this happened because they win.”
A native of Indiana, Mata Wilkin said she was raised Methodist. She’s lived in the Squirrel Hill community for 30 years, and now lives less than a mile from Tree of Life. The morning of the shooting, she was at an exercise class at the Jewish Community Center, which was locked down.
“I just wanted to be here, to support the Jewish community,” she said. “It means more than it usually does.”
Mitchell Hoffman, of Squirrel Hill, said Hanukkah is a commemoration of freedom. This year, there’s greater appreciation of the freedom “to be who you are.”
“The community is much closer,” he said. “There’s a general feeling of connection, not just in the Jewish community but across the board. It’s nice to see such a favorable response.
“We forget a lot of painful things,” he said. “This seems to be different. Nobody is forgetting this yet.”
Mike Schroeder, of Swissvale, saw the menorah lighting as a “cathartic event” and a “unifying experience.”
“I’m pretty proud of the messaging coming out of this,” he said. “Sure we have our problems. We’ve been brought together to help each other, to lean on each other.
“The period of mourning is over,” he said. “It’s time to move forward together.”
Brian Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.