As Pittsburgh shooter stood trial, a congregation he attacked found parallels with Palestinians in the West Bank


((JEWISH REVIEW)) —  About two weeks ago, the CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group, testified in the trial of the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman — discussing how his group’s partnership with one of the building’s congregations prompted the shooter to commit the attack. 

As he took the stand, some members of that congregation, Dor Hadash, were far from Pittsburgh. They were in the midst of a tour of Israel and the West Bank whose goal was to bring synagogues to meet Palestinians and Arab-Israelis as well as Jewish Israelis. But despite the distance, Dor Hadash Rabbi Amy Bardack saw a thematic parallel between the trial and the group’s time in the West Bank.

“We were before the shooting very committed to refugee rights,” Bardack said of her congregation during an interview earlier this month in the city of Bethlehem. “And after the shooting, this congregation did not shrink from its activism but leaned into it even further.”

Bardack added that the trip “was an opportunity to dip our toe into thinking about refugees in the context of this land and country.”

The nine-day trip, run by an organization called Shleimut, is among the latest initiatives aiming to familiarize American Jews with Palestinians as well as Israelis. The itinerary split time between Israel and the West Bank, and, according to Shleimut’s website, asked participants to “reimagine how to integrate Israel/Palestine into their life and work.”

For the Dor Hadash delegation, however, there was another dimension to the tour. While the trip had been scheduled before the trial date was set, the court proceedings have resurfaced memories from the shooting, and spurred the Dor Hadash participants to connect their own trauma to both the Israeli and Palestinian experience. 

“The trauma for Dor Hadash awakened something in me that I would not just as an individual have known about,” said Wendy Kobee, a Dor Hadash member who participated in the trip. “It allows me to be more sensitive to those kinds of traumas that people and communities experience.”

Referring to a Palestinian villager the group met who was worried about his home being demolished because it was built without a permit approved by Israeli authorities, Bardack said, “The fear and anxiety that he spoke about reminds me of those early days after the shooting.” 

Listening to his description of what she called “the stage of acute traumatic response,” Bardack, who worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh at the time of the 2018 attack, thought of “the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Many Pittsburgh Jews described the same symptoms, with their bodies in adrenaline overdrive.”

In the days following the shooting, Israeli trauma specialists saw parallels between the attack and the experience of Israeli terror victims. The Israel Trauma Coalition, which aids Israeli civilians experiencing trauma, as well as victims of natural disasters and conflicts around the world, sent a delegation to Pittsburgh soon after the shooting. The group’s CEO, Talia Levanon, said in a statement at the time, “As Israelis, we see an obligation to share this knowledge with communities in crisis all over the world, and even more so with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish communities of North America.”

Bardack referred to the Israel Trauma Coalition’s work in Pittsburgh, which she said “helped us enormously,” adding that she wished the coalition could help Palerstinians as well. She also said she was struck by “the ongoing trauma of Israeli soldiers who have to do this.” She added, “The unhealed trauma here is enormously sad.”

It was Shleimut’s first time bringing synagogue delegations on the trip, which was funded by participant fees ranging from $1,800 to $3,600 on a sliding scale. Shleimut’s founder, Ilana Sumka, is a former staff member of Encounter — a long-running program that brings American Jews to the West Bank to learn about Palestinians’ experiences. She also founded the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, a group that organizes American Jews to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank through civil disobedience.

Shleimut, which began operating in 2018, has worked to blend social justice activism with spiritual practice. Its delegations to Israel and the West Bank aim to split time evenly between Jewish Israelis on one hand and Arab Israelis and Palestinians on the other. That’s a departure from the traditional itineraries of most U.S. synagogue trips to Israel, which largely spend their time in Jewish Israeli areas. 

Shleimut’s focus is on Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists and progressive groups, and has little engagement with right-wing or pro-settler Israeli organizations, though participants did speak with individual right-wing Israelis. Throughout the Shleimut itinerary, participants hear from leaders of nonprofits that oppose Israel’s West Bank occupation, such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah and Combatants for Peace. 

The trip began on June 6, and took participants to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and towns in northern Israel in addition to the Palestinian West Bank cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, as well as smaller villages. The group walked through multiple Israeli West Bank checkpoints, visited a Palestinian farm as well as a kibbutz, and attended the Tel Aviv Pride Parade and a Jerusalem protest against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul. 

The group discussed Jewish Israeli as well as Palestinian trauma, including the legacy of the Holocaust and what Sumka called “contemporary Jewish Israeli pain from wars over the last 75 years and terrorist attacks.” 

“I feel honored to have played a role in supporting the Dor Hadash members the opportunity to apply their own values of tikkun olam to the situation in Israel/Palestine,” said Sumka, referring to the traditional Jewish imperative to repair the world. “Their resilience and their commitment to justice for all, whether in the U.S. or Israel/Palestine, is an inspiration.”

The Shleimut trip began in the middle of 11 days of wrenching testimony in Pittsburgh from survivors of the attack, relatives of victims and first responders. One trip member had testified at the trial just before flying to Israel to come on the trip, but declined to speak to (JEWISH REVIEW) at the congregation’s request.

Dor Hadash member Rich Weinberg said the congregation “is not overly involved right now” in the proceedings because the synagogue opposes giving the shooter the death penalty — a sentence the prosecution is pursuing. On June 16, the defendant was found guilty on all counts, and the sentencing phase of the trial began this week.

“We made our appeal to the Justice Department,” said Weinberg, who chairs Dor Hadash’s social action committee. “And they moved in a different direction.”

In the nearly five years since it occurred, the Pittsburgh shooting has become a tragic reference point for discussing antisemitism in the United States. But on the trip, Weinberg connected the shooting with another attack on a house of worship — the 1994 shooting at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in which an American-born Israeli settler killed 29 Muslims at prayer. 

Weinberg was dismayed, he said, when the group visited that shooter’s gravestone and read an inscription on the monument saying he died “with clean hands and a pure heart” — especially because Pittsburgh Jews make an effort to avoid saying the name of the man who committed the 2018 attack.

“It was shocking to come to the burial site of Goldstein and observe that he’s venerated as a Jewish martyr,” Weinberg said, referencing the Hebron shooter, whose burial site is treated as a pilgrimage site by a small minority of Jewish extremists. 

The trip included a group from T’chiyah, a Detroit-area congregation that, like Dor Hadash, is Reconstructionist. Sumka, who lives in Belgium, hopes synagogues that go on Shleimut’s tour will go on to form relationships that, in the past, synagogues have pursued with Jewish Israelis, such as forming a sister-city relationship with a Palestinian community or inviting Palestinians to speak at an event. 

Rabbi Alana Alpert of T’chiyah said that Dor Hadash’s participation in the trip makes her feel “very hopeful” for the American Jewish community.

She added that by going on the trip, Dor Hadash is “doubling down on their commitment to the kinds of justice work that made them a target in the first place.”