A Solemn Bond at Chabad Center, Grief Endures but Resilience Resonates after Calif. Shootings

By Smith, Peter | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 12, 2019 | Go to article overview

A Solemn Bond at Chabad Center, Grief Endures but Resilience Resonates after Calif. Shootings


Smith, Peter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


As evening approached Friday, worshipers filtered in to the Chabad of Pittsburgh center in Squirrel Hill.

Men and women, separated by a portable folding partition, bowed, swayed or chanted Hebrew prayers. Women in the adjacent dining hall lit votive candles at sundown to mark the beginning of Shabbat, and they brought a steady stream of serving dishes bearing salads, dips and main dishes to a row of tables for a dinner after the service, while the younger children ran and played.

At one point the men at worship - some of them in traditional black suits with long coats and brimmed hats, some in modern suits or casual clothing - danced in a circle, welcoming the start of Shabbat.

The event was a monthly Shabbat dinner hosted by Chabad of Pittsburgh, part of a global Orthodox Jewish outreach network. That movement was struck with grief two weeks ago when an anti-Semitic gunman killed one worshiper and wounded three others, including a rabbi, at a Shabbat service at the Chabad synagogue of Poway, Calif.

Chabad, also known as the Chabad-Lubavitch organization, stems from a 250-year-old branch of Hasidic Judaism, a branch of Orthodoxy whose members wear traditional dress, engage in intense devotion and seek to promote religious observance among all Jews. It was historically led by spiritual authorities known as rebbes, most recently Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, an immensely charismatic rebbe who died in 1994.

Even without a successor of such stature since then, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based organization has continued to thrive, with about 4,700 "emissary couples" working in centers around the world.

Since this was the first dinner at the Squirrel Hill center since the shootings, participants commemorated the Poway victims.

For Pittsburgh participants in Chabad activities, the latest shootings compounded the grief they experienced Oct. 27 when another gunman killed 11 at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

"Certainly whenever something like this happens, everyone immediately feels it. Coming from Pittsburgh ... it hit home," said Rabbi Yisroel Altein, director of Chabad of Pittsburgh.

"For Chabad, everyone is just one or two degrees away" in some sort of connection to friends or family, he said. "It feels very personal that this happened at one of our centers."

Several members of Chabad of Pittsburgh have ties to the Poway congregation. The grandparents of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was wounded in the shootings, lived in Pittsburgh and helped found the Yeshiva schools here, recalled Leah Davidson, a cousin of Rabbi Goldstein.

Rabbi Altein said that while he doesn't know Rabbi Goldstein well, he's related to him by marriage. Brian Miller, who was attending worship there, said a couple with whom he's friends survived the Poway shooting.

Such connections are common in the Chabad organization, given the large families in its ranks and its wide dispersal as centers expand to locations that often would struggle to sustain a permanent Jewish presence.

Rabbi Altein prepared a message Friday that alluded to Rabbi Goldstein's words after the shootings, in which he called on people to drive out the darkness with light.

"Every individual has the ability to be holy and is commanded to make themselves holy," said Rabbi Altein, adding that people need to value their own lives and those of others as being made in the image of God.

Ellen Faleder of Squirrel Hill said she has been coming to Saturday services at Chabad since the Tree of Life shootings. She said she almost went to Tree of Life that fateful Oct. 27 but instead went for coffee nearby and heard the news soon after. Coming to services since then has been an "anchor for me," she said.

Key parts of Chabad's activities in Pittsburgh are the Yeshiva Schools and the Lubavitch Center, both in Squirrel Hill. The Lubavitch Center functions as a synagogue oriented toward observant Hasidic Jews, estimated at a couple of hundred families in the Pittsburgh area. …

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