Community Members Reflect on Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre One Year Later 

By Amanda Joerndt

A gunman opened fire and killed 11 individuals praying during Sabbath at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.

Little did the world know, thousands of lives would be changed forever.

Exactly one year later on Oct. 27, 2019, the city of Pittsburgh held a “Pause with Pittsburgh” virtual service for individuals near and far to remember the innocent lives lost. 

Members of Jewish and other identity groups were able to “send good wishes to Pittsburgh, pray for those who were lost and watch online a very somber memorial service,” said Bonnie Deutsch Burdman, director for community relations and government affairs for the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation.

People around the world gathered at local synagogues to pause and reflect in unity on what is being considered the most horrific anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

Officials working and practicing in Jewish communities throughout Youngstown spoke about the past year following the massacre and shared how unity and love helped overcome the devastation. 

Deutsch Burdman said advocating for issues on behalf of the Jewish community in her daily work has led her to deal with issues relating to anti-Semitism.

“It made us all realize — not that we didn’t know about it before — but how important it is for security and for us to pay attention to security,” Deutsch Burdman said. “To engage in extra efforts to make sure we are safe.”

Deutsch Burdman said although the community was mourning, signs of unity overpowered sorrow, with people from different religions, political affiliations and socioeconomic classes coming together.

“We were one of hundreds of communities that hosted interfaith vigils,” she said. “We had over 600 people come together of all different faiths in the immediate aftermath of the shooting,” she said.”

According to Deutsch Burdman, anti-Semitism is still an ongoing fear in Jewish communities.

“We see it everyday with swastikas being painted on houses of worship, college campuses,” she said. “We see Jews who are openly dressed as Jewish being beaten up in various parts of the world, including the United States.”

Jacob Labendz, assistant professor of Judaic and Holocaust Studies, said when he first heard about the massacre, he felt the mourning on a personal level.

“Some of my nicest memories of my youth took place in synagogues,” he said. “It’s the place where I felt safest and cared for and happy.”

Labendz said following the shooting, Youngstown State University worked to host two events in light of the massacre.

“One was a talk so that I can address students and help them figure out what happened,” Labendz said. “The other was an extremely thoughtful memorial. [Ani Solomon] ordered stones and created a memorial for the 11 Jews who were murdered and allowed people to select and put a stone out by their images.” 

According to Labendz, he is less interested in memorialization and more focused on learning about “the ideologies of white nationalism and structures of white supremacy, which motivated the massacre.” 

“I didn’t know anyone who was murdered, but I know people who were affected by their murder,” he said. “I want to see, beyond memorialization, it integrated into the curriculum and into the mission statements of major organizations.”

The Rev. Joseph Boyd of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown said the idea of “being stronger than hate” has resonated with him over the past year. 

“I think it’s also very important that we stay in touch with those who are directly impacted and suffering,” he said. “Oftentimes we can feel powerless, but I think through community we can find power that is much greater than hate.”

Boyd said his congregation has supported one another with vigil services open to the community.

“Our congregation has done an interfaith Shabbat service. We’ve done interfaith Seders with the Jewish community next door,” he said. “There’s been a real joy in that and a real reception in a sense that, yes, this is the time we should be coming together.”

According to Boyd, incorporating the phrase, “love triumphs hate,” plays a key role in his religious teachings.

“The more we keep responding with love, it shows that hate never has the last word,” Boyd said. “That’s my commitment as a religious leader is that hate never has the last word.”

Local Shooting Threat Leaves the Youngstown Jewish Community on High Alert  

In August 2019, a threat to Youngstown’s Jewish Community Center made local and national headlines, falling only two months shy of the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. 

James Patrick Reardon, 20-year-old New Middletown resident, made a threat directed at the JCC, leading to an investigation and arrest at the man’s home.

According to a CNN article, he allegedly threatened the JCC through an Instagram post that “featured a video that showed a man holding an assault rifle as audio played of gunshots, sirens and people screaming.” 

The article states Reardon was “charged with one count of transmitting an interstate communication threat and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.” 

On Oct. 29, a federal judge ruled Reardon will remain in jail for the threats, ensuring he will not regain his freedom anytime soon. 

Deutsch Burdman said with local and national threats made to the Jewish community, law enforcement kicked into gear, ensuring the safety of the community. 

“Thankfully it wasn’t carried out with law enforcement discovering it in advance,” she said. “The individual who perpetrated the online threat is now behind bars awaiting trial.” 

According to Deutsch Burdman, being on alert for threats of anti-Semitism is considered a “new trend” in the community.

“At the end of the day, it’s a new reality for us that, as Jews, we don’t always feel secure in our own environment and have to pay attention to the threats of anti-Semitism that are so prevalent out there,” she said.