Freedom and Passover 6 months after the Tree of Life massacre
A threat to the freedom that Jews celebrate during Passover is still fresh in the mind of the Pittsburgh community.
Passover starts at sundown Friday and ends at sundown April 27, the six-month anniversary of the massacre at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue.
“The first Passover without 11 members of our community, who should be here celebrating with us, is difficult,” said Joshua Sayles, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “For a significant portion of our community it will take years to heal, and things will never be the same.”
The Passover Seder — a traditional dinner that takes place during the holiday — includes the retelling of the enslavement of Jews in Egypt and ends with their being freed. The holiday is a chance for Jews to remember their roots and focus on people around the world who are oppressed.
Judith Yanowitz, the ritual vice president of congregation Dor Hadash, one of the congregations targeted in the attack, said the Oct. 27 shooting invigorated the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
Robert Bowers is accused of opening fire inside the synagogue, where the Dor Hadash, Tree of Life and New Life congregations were holding services. Eleven people were killed. Several people were wounded.
“We can’t be complacent,” Yanowitz said. “We need to constantly be aware and fighting for religious freedom for all people.”
Yanowitz said she’ll be thinking about her neighbors this Passover. Gun violence, the shooting at her synagogue, the June killing of Antwon Rose II and the January shooting of Jonathan Freeman, a 16-year-old honors student from Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill will be on her mind.
“I think more in front of us is the need to reach out to other communities,” she said. “I think the incredible outpouring of community in Squirrel Hill made — particularly the congregation — us realize the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our local area.”
She said her Seder this year will look at the ills of modern day and focus on a discussion of how to help bring freedom and equality to all people.
The Seder at Rodef Shalom, a large synagogue in Shadyside where many of the funerals for those killed at Tree of Life were held, will focus on the experience of immigrants and refugees, something Jews have faced throughout their history.
“One of the commandments with regard to Passover is to imagine that we were slaves in the land of Egypt,” Rabbi Aaron Bisno said. “But when Jews remember that they were slaves, it doesn’t end with slavery, so it means that we also were immigrants and refugees fleeing a dangerous circumstance in the country of our birth.”
Bisno said that message will be key to the congregation’s Seder. They plan to use material from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which works to resettle and aid immigrants to the United States. Dor Hadash had committed to working with the aid group, and that, in part, motivated Bowers.
Sayles said Passover could be a hard time for those still healing from the shooting. Nearly six months have passed, but each community member heals in his own time and in his own way, he said.
“Oftentimes, the most difficult holiday after the loss of a loved one or family member or friend or somebody in your community is that first holiday observance,” Sayles said. “While we as a community have celebrated Hanukah and Purim, this is the first Passover — this is our first major holiday — in the community since the shooting.”