By Suzanne Pollak
While thousands of people flocked to area synagogues and churches during the past two weeks in a show of support for the 11 synagogue attendees gunned down as they prayed, others felt compelled to travel to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh itself.
At least three County rabbis went to the scene of the deadly attack and spoke with mourners, while Joyce Torchinsky, founder and managing director of Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home, served as a funeral director during four of the funerals.
As the immediate past president of KAVOD, an independent organization for Jewish funeral chapels, Torchinsky, of Olney, knew she could assist at the 11 funerals of the shooting victims, lending a hand and easing the burden on funeral workers in Pittsburgh, who coordinated those funerals and other unconnected funerals occurring on the same days.
She called the Jewish funeral home in Pittsburgh to offer assistance. “They said to me, how soon can you get up here?” she recalled.
Torchinsky arrived Tuesday and began handling the necessary paperwork and then participating in funerals on Wednesday and Thursday, she said. “It was emotionally overwhelming.”
She also visited the Tree of Life synagogue and saw the memorial mourners had decorated with flowers, cards and other mementos.
“It was like a train wreck. You didn’t want to look at it, but you couldn’t not,” she said of the “shrine to 11 souls” who were killed at “their home away from home.”
Torchinsky wasn’t the only County resident who felt compelled to go.
Rabbi Uri Topolosky, of Kehilat Pardes – the Rock Creek Synagogue in Aspen Hill, was enjoying his synagogue’s gala the day after the shooting when several people talked about going to Pittsburgh the following morning. The idea was “to bring a message of love, sympathy and support,” he explained.
“At the end of the day we went there to bring comfort,” he said. “We also went to bear witness.”
Along with Rabbi Adam Raskin of Har Shalom in Potomac and Rabbi Daniel Braune Friedman, director of pastoral care at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities’ Hebrew Home in Rockville, Topolosky traveled to Pittsburgh Monday morning.
For several hours, the rabbis stood at the makeshift memorial as people continually came by. “Waves and waves of people came — individuals, families, clergy of different faiths, school groups,” Topolosky said.
“You saw on a street corner literally the entire world. When someone is killed because of who they are, because of their race, because of their religion, it is an act of violence against the entire whole world,” Topolosky said.
Raskin stood on the same street corner, explaining, “I just felt called to that place. As a rabbi I wanted to be with the people of Pittsburgh.”
Many of the people he met were shocked that something so horrible could happen in their community, Raskin said.
“There was a lot of sadness and fear, shock and disbelief.”
During the day, mourners talked about a woman named Bonnie who had lost two brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law. Raskin went with his fellow rabbis to her job at the front desk of a condominium.
“We sang with her,” he said.
While Raskin was touched with all that he saw in Pittsburgh, he “was totally moved” during an All Souls Day ceremony he was invited to a few days later at St. Francis International School in Silver Spring.
Included with framed pictures of school family and friends who had died were photos of the 11 Jews killed in Pittsburgh.
The students also handed him a stack of cards they had made and asked him to make sure they were delivered to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.
“It just blew me away, honestly,” he said. “I was totally moved in a way I didn’t expect to be. There was so much support and love.”