Pittsburgh synagogue massacre 1 year later: How family of one of the 11 victims faced the 'unanswerable hate'

Eleven Jews were killed at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.

October 26, 2019, 5:08 AM

When a gunman burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue last Oct. 27, lives were shattered and the community was changed forever.

Among the 11 killed by the shooter, who was allegedly looking to target Jews, was Joyce Fienberg, a longtime member of the congregation.

Fienberg's daughter-in-law, like relatives of so many of the victims and survivors of what the Anti-Defamation League called the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, was thrust into despair.

Over the past 12 months, Marnie Fienberg embarked on the difficult journey from mourner to activist, finding her own way to combat the "unanswerable hate" of anti-Semitism, which advocates say is on the rise in the United States.

Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting in Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2018.
Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

A matriarch gone

Joyce Fienberg, a Toronto native, moved to Pittsburgh for her husband's career, but she became a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and immersed herself in the city, said her daughter-in-law.

The family grew, and as a loving grandmother of six, Joyce Fienberg was the leader of the family's Passover Seders.

Joyce Fienberg is seen here in this undated file photo.
Courtesy Fienberg Family

"My mother-in-law was one of those quiet, gracious people" who "makes you feel comfortable," Marnie Fienberg told ABC News.

Her in-laws were members of Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue for 30 years, and for Joyce Fienberg, that continued after her husband's death in 2016.

"Part of the Jewish mourning process is to go and say the prayer for the dead," Fienberg said. "If you're a primary mourner, you're supposed to say it every day." Ten people must be present for the prayer, Fienberg said, so her mother-in-law chose to make trips to synagogue a daily part of her morning, not only to pray for her husband, but to be there for other mourners.

So when news broke of a shooting the morning of Oct. 27, Marnie Fienberg knew her mother-in-law would be there. She and her husband jumped in the car and drove from their Washington, D.C.,-area home to Pittsburgh.

She and her husband rationalized why they weren't hearing from Joyce on their drive up -- they decided she must be helping someone, she must have dropped her phone. They got confirmation about her body about six hours after arriving, but by that point, reality sank in. "Because we hadn't heard from her in so long, we knew," Fienberg said.

Two-thousand people came to Joyce Fienberg's funeral.

Pallbearers carry the casket of Joyce Fienberg from the Beth Shalom Synagogue following a funeral service in Pittsburgh, Oct. 31, 2018.
Gene J. Puskar/AP, FILE

"In the face of this hate, of this unanswerable hate, to have so much more love and support, it really makes you feel this country that we're in is an amazing, positive place," Fienberg said. "It's not going to be dragged down by these people who want to hate."

A 'communal grieving process' 

For Fienberg, a crucial step forward in the grieving process was meeting with the Parkland survivors, who she said helped guide the Pittsburgh families them through what to expect in the traumatic months ahead.

While Fienberg lives in the D.C. area, most survivors and their families are near Pittsburgh, and this month a resiliency center opened for those impacted.

With a focus on community support and well-being, the 10.27 Healing Partnership offers trauma-based wellness classes, health resources and a peaceful place for anyone feeling vulnerable, said director Maggie Feinstein.

By offering a "comfortable door for people to walk through," Feinstein told ABC News, "they can feel safe, they can decide what services may be helpful for them." The Tree of Life Synagogue remains closed and it is unclear whether it will reopen.

A woman cries as she waits to place flowers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2018.
Matt Rourke/AP

Feinstein said one congregant told her it had been difficult to find support without having a physical synagogue anymore; now that member looks forward to using the center to simply enjoy coffee in a communal atmosphere.

“There has been an outpouring of support from the community in using the center and volunteering to help prepare the space," Feinstein said. "There has been such a positive energy since we opened earlier this month. “

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018.
Matt Rourke/AP, FILE

'Painful wake up call' 

A San Diego county sheriff's deputy stands in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Sunday, April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif.
Denis Poroy/AP, FILE

The attacks at the Tree of Life Synagogue and another six months later in San Diego County, which left one woman dead and injured three others, come amid a rise in anti-Semitic expressions in the country.

From 2001 to 2015, anti-Semitic incidents were on the decline, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), told ABC News.

That changed in 2016, when incidents spiked 34%, he said.

Then in 2017, the year of the Charlottesville attack -- during the largest white supremacy rally in 15 years -- "we saw the largest spike we'd ever observed -- a 57% surge," Greenblatt said.

PHOTO: Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, pay their respects following a funeral service at the Jewish Community Center, Oct. 30, 2018.
Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, pay their respects as the funeral procession for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz passes their school en route to Homewood Cemetery following a funeral service at the Jewish Community Center, Oct. 30, 2018.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

Jews have enjoyed privilege and freedom for hundreds of years in the U.S, he said, but Pittsburgh was "a reminder of how fragile all this [freedom] can be."

Synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish community centers (JCCs) across the country have ramped up security in the wake of Pittsburgh and other attacks, said Greenblatt.

Marnie Fienberg said her own daughter sees police outside synagogue and undergoes active shooter training at Hebrew school.

"Communities don't feel like they can take the risk of not [increasing security]," Greenblatt said. "Knowing what we know, having seen what we've seen, as we still mourn those lives lost, don't be surprised where synagogues and JCCs and Jewish day schools take extraordinary measures to make sure that their children, their communities are safe."

"I don't think we can take the risk of being sanguine about it," he said, "because the downside is too great."

The current threat environment is "alarming," says John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and former acting undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security. Cohen says while the number of white supremacists is likely not on the rise, what's changed is that "people who connect with this ideological belief feel comfortable coming out publicly."

"In the past white supremacists were geographically isolated," Cohen said, but now they "consume that material online and communicate with like minded people across the globe and receive a sense of empowerment and validation for their angry or violent behavior."

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett(C) arrives at the Tree of Life synagogue, Oct. 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

'Build a bridge as opposed to tearing a bridge down' 

In the wake of her mother-in-law's killing, Marnie Fienberg couldn't bring herself to return to work. Instead, she felt compelled to contribute to the fight against anti-Semitism.

While some mass shooting survivors, like the Parkland activists, poured their energy into changing policy, Fienberg chose to focus on the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, which is working to repair the world through acts of kindness.

A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on Monday, April 29, 2019.
Gregory Bull/AP, FILE

Her outlet was through an initiative she named "2 for Seder," which encourages Jews to invite two non Jews to Passover Seder -- the annual dinner where family and friends eat, drink, sing and re-tell the story of the enslaved Jews' escape from Egypt.

"2 for Seder" was inspired by her slain mother-in-law, who Fienberg said hosted the family's Seders for 12 years and would go out of her way to invite friends from diverse backgrounds and make them feel comfortable.

Fienberg decided this was her own small way to fight anti-Semitism and hate, because an interactive Seder can start a conversation.

"We can have a discussion about what we have in common as opposed to what we don't have in common," she said.

In the first year of "2 for Seder," Fienberg said 1,000 people signed up to participate across 45 states and some Canadian provinces.

She hopes the initiative comes full circle in the years to come, so those who attend Seder extend invitations for Jewish friends to come to their own events, whether Easter or Diwali.

"That is the only place you can begin to build a bridge as opposed to tearing a bridge down," said Fienberg,

Going forward in the fight against anti-Semitism, Greenblatt said elected officials and those "in positions of authority need to call out anti-Semitism when it happens."

"The trend line clearly demonstrates that white supremacy is a global terror threat," Greenblatt said. "So we [the ADL] have been and will continue to be loud and unambiguous advocates for a set of policies at the federal level and a set of practices, whether it's in the public sector or the private sector, to call attention to the fact that this threat needs to be dealt with in a much more effective and energetic way."

As Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue suspect, heads to trial, Fienberg said she'll go to court because she feels it's important to have a representative from her family "bear witness."

And Fienberg says her husband now sets aside one hour each day to go to synagogue and pray for his mother -- just like she had done until her untimely death.

On Sunday -- the one-year mark of the massacre -- mourners in Pittsburgh will gather at 5 p.m. for a public memorial service.

But everyone across the globe is invited to the moment of remembrance and solidarity via live stream, said Rebecca Dinar, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Federation. Several thousand have registered online for the "Pause with Pittsburgh" event. Each participant will receive a text at 5 p.m. which will contain a video with a mourning prayer and the names of the 11 victims.