Tree of Life: Exploring the Effects, Studying the Causes, Remembering the Tragedy

A crowd of people standing togetherIt was two years ago on Oct. 27 that a gunman burst into the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill and opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding six.

The attack, the deadliest on the Jewish community in the United States, shocked and saddened the world, and the University of Pittsburgh and the people of the city came together both to mourn and to help others through the days and months that followed.

Immediately after the shooting, social workers, counselors, psychologists and other humanitarians and their support staffs began rallying to rebuild the shattered community as people sought safe and comforting spaces in the wake of the attack. An organization called 10.27 Healing Partnership emerged as the primary coordinating agency for this response. It is composed of community, government and faith-based entities.

As the group began to solidify, Pitt Social Work Associate Professor Rafael Engel, Professor Daniel Rosen and postdoctoral fellow Daniel Lee distributed an anonymous electronic survey to 12 nonprofit social service agencies and schools in the area to assess the mental health well-being of their staffs as a result of the work responding to the tragedy.

Engel had been a member of Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations that worshipped at the Tree of Life Building, for more than 29 years

"I knew that there were people who were struggling emotionally, as did Danny [Rosen]," said Engel. "I approached Danny and we agreed that it was important to identify and document how prevalent were emotional challenges were. We saw this as an opportunity to help our community, which is why we linked from the very beginning with Maggie Feinstein [director of] the 10-27 Healing Partnership."

Of the 167 individuals who responded to the social work study, one-third of them screened positive for at least one mental health issue. Some had thoughts of suicide; others reported generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD or the misuse of alcohol.

“Those responses reflect what has been known in first responder communities for some time—that an event like this can have lasting and far-reaching impact on people, even if they were not present at the time of the tragedy,” said Feinstein, who is also a licensed therapist.

The study, published on JAMA Network Open, pointed to the need for even more outreach to those who were suffering, be they members of the community or the counselors and agency intake workers themselves.

“For example, the finding that nearly 20% of the respondents had a positive screen for PTSD was an impetus for the organizations to learn more about trauma-informed supervision,” said Engel, adding that the screen is not a diagnosis but a suggestion for further diagnostic evaluation.

[A]n event like this can have lasting and far-reaching impact on people, even if they were not present at the time of the tragedy.

Maggie Feinstein, director of 10.27 Healing Partnership.

The findings also revealed a mental health impact on many staffers who were not even in direct contact with the synagogue or the victim’s families. Engel said that helped the agencies realize that any training or programming on mental health should extend to every agency employee.

As a result, one doesn’t have to go far to be offered a healing hand. The 10.27 group provides individual counseling, support groups, wellness classes, educational programming and access to resources. It offers training to trauma-informed schools, institutions that can provide support to any student who has experienced trauma.

“Some of our training work is a direct result of Professor Engel’s study,” said Feinstein.

The group’s usual gathering space at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh has been limited due to the pandemic. So, Feinstein and her team erected a small white tent outside on Forbes Avenue, where passers-by are welcome two days a week to seek counseling or just chat about their feelings in what the organization calls “Canopy Conversations.”

Feinstein notes that this year’s anniversary may be even harsher, due to the pandemic.

“I’m concerned about how isolated or disconnected people have been feeling and how that will play out with the emotional intensity that comes at the time of a commemoration,” she said.

Nonetheless, her group has planned a number of initiatives, ranging from a Torah study to a day of service and includes a virtual Community Commemorative Gathering today, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m.

“I’m very impressed with the community’s efforts,” she said.

Two years later: A look at the University of Pittsburgh response

The Monday after the weekend shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher expressed the sadness and grief of the University of Pittsburgh community and encouraged connection, support and solidarity among its members.

He spoke again, along with others from Pitt and the city community, just a little more than a week after the tragedy, as the community gathered for Pitt Together: Stronger Than Hate tribute. The tribute, where thousands gathered on the lawn between the Cathedral of Learning and the Heinz Memorial Chapel, honored the lives of the 11 Tree of Life synagogue members killed at their house of worship in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Pitt Med magazine explored the harrowing experiences of the first responders who rushed in the day of the shootings in Gavin Jenkins’ award-winning story “Pittsburgh’s Darkest Day and the Mass Casualty Response.” Jenkins also wrote about what Pitt’s experts are doing to prevent and understand violence in the magazine’s “Left of Bang—Preventing a Disease Called Violence.”

Last year, in remembrance of the first anniversary of the tragedy, Pitt partnered with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to bring the traveling installation "Lest We Forget" to campus. The photography exhibition was also held on the lawn of the Cathedral, with large photos of now elderly survivors standing as impossible-to-ignore testament to the history of the Holocaust and its survivors.

Today, the University of Pittsburgh Student Government Board released its own video that the students produced, to "remember and honor those lost and continue to build a community free of violence and hate."

This year, on the second anniversary of the tragedy, the entire University of Pittsburgh continues to stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh community in remembering the events of Oct. 27, 2018, and honoring those who died that day.

A crowd standing together in front f Heinz Chapel