One year after a gunman opened fire at Tree of Life Synagogue, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, Pittsburgh-area students are still looking for meaningful ways to grieve and channel their sorrow into acts of loving kindness.
To help them, Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh created “11 Days of Chesed,” a series of events in November that focused on learning, giving back and communal comfort.
Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at Hillel JUC, said the activities gave students a chance to “put light into the world after such a dark time.”
The “11 Days of Chesed” started with the fifth annual Stephen D. Kalson Memorial Hillel Makes a Difference Day (HMADD). Over 100 students worked on 12 different community service projects across the city, ranging from spending time with the residents at Riverview Home for Jewish Seniors to baking treats for the guests at Family House, a home for patients and families receiving medical care.
Leah Belman ‘21, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, volunteered by composting expired food at the Pitt Pantry, a university-run food pantry dedicated to reducing food insecurity for students.
“HMADD was really meaningful to me this year because I think it’s important to volunteer with the Jewish community and support each other during this time,” Belman said. “I feel like I made a difference in the Jewish community and it spread outwards to the Pittsburgh community.”
Students also came together to braid challah with the Hillel JUC chapter of Challah for Hunger. Profits from selling the challot went toward ending food insecurity in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Although this is a weekly activity, its occurrence during these 11 days introduced new emotions for Sami Semiatin ’22, a volunteer coordinator for Challah for Hunger.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said.
Semiatin joined Challah for Hunger after the organization offered a large-scale baking day in Oct. 2018, in response to the Tree of Life shooting. She said this year’s bake marked one year of healing for her, and she hopes that braiding challah has helped others in the same way.
“It lets you put action to words,” Semiatin said. “It’s cathartic.”
In addition to service activities, students had opportunities for spiritual moments of togetherness. On Nov. 9, the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh organized a Havdalah service for students and local community members.
The service was led by Hillel students Julia Szwalbenest ’22 and Joe Slomowitz ’23.
Szwalbenest said she felt a sense of comfort from the presence of the larger Pittsburgh Jewish community at the crossroads of these commemorations.
“Even though I’m not originally from Pittsburgh, doing Havdalah with these people tonight made me feel connected because we all shared this unique experience,” Szwalbenest said.
Students also heard from local speakers, including 78 year-old Holocaust survivor Shulamit Bastacky, who currently lives in Squirrel Hill. Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity that is part of Hillel JUC’s Jewish Greek Life Association, organized Shulamit’s visit.
Wearing a Stronger Than Hate pin on her sweater, Bastacky spoke to over 50 students, beginning her story by discussing her memory of the Tree of Life shooting.
Upon first hearing the sirens, Bastacky feared that someone in her apartment complex, which houses senior citizens, was being taken to the hospital. When she learned of the nearby shooting, Bastacky was reminded of relatives she lost during the Holocaust.
“I was in such a state of shock,” Bastacky said.
She had never expected an anti-Semitic attack like this to happen in Pittsburgh.
Throughout her story, she stressed the importance of education and morality. She noted how anti-Semitism will never fully be eradicated, yet we must continue to fight against it.
“We fight anti-Semitism with information and kindness,” Bastacky said. “Not violence. Violence never does anything.”
The culmination of the “11 Days of Chesed” was on Nov. 15 (the 18th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan) with a Yahrzeit Shabbat.
The evening began with a Yahrzeit candle-lighting service, featuring candle holders made by Hillel students, followed by Shabbat services. When the Mourner’s Kaddish was said, over 40 students rose to speak the words of grief together.
The Shabbat dinner drew over 100 students of different faiths from various schools in Pittsburgh. The dinner was also attended by administration officials from University of Pittsburgh, including Kenyon Bonner, Dean of Students, and Kathy Humphrey, Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement and Secretary of the Board of Trustees.
The night also featured a performance by Hillelujah, Hillel JUC’s a cappella group. They sang the Israeli national anthem HaTikvah, which translates to “The Hope.”
Aidan Segal ‘21, a junior at University of Pittsburgh, said, “As a member of Tree of Life Synagogue, it was uplifting to have this many students commemorate the Yahrzeit of the 11 victims. I go to Shabbat every week, but this is one I will never forget.”
Story by Dionna Dash.