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Pittsburgh Synagogue Gets Help From Neighboring Church, 1 Year After Deadly Shooting


The Jewish High Holidays are here, and we're going to look now at how the synagogue that suffered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history is marking them. That attack, of course, was in Pittsburgh nearly a year ago. As Bill O'Driscoll of member station WESA reports, the congregation is getting support from Christian neighbors.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: As soon as regular Sunday services ended yesterday, Calvary Episcopal Church volunteers began preparing the 113-year-old sanctuary for a second service. That evening, hundreds of members of Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Synagogue arrived to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

WILLIAM STEVENS: These will be covered for the next two weeks.

O'DRISCOLL: William Stevens walked through the Gothic Revival church's shadowy interior daylit through stained glass, carrying swaths of black fabric. He's director of Calvary's altar guild, and he carefully draped the largest crosses, including the golden one on the high altar. Stevens said covering the crosses is simply hospitable to folks of a different faith.

STEVENS: For me, it's to make them feel welcome, you know, rather than having a cross.

O'DRISCOLL: The services come 11 months after the shooting at Tree of Life, which killed 11 and injured six. The man accused of the killings faces federal hate crimes charges. The outpouring of sympathy was immediate. Among the letters Tree of Life received was one from Calvary Episcopal head priest Reverend Jonathon Jensen.

JONATHON JENSEN: What I said in the letter is we're very good at sharing space and partnering with people, and we've done that for a hundred years.

O'DRISCOLL: Calvary sits about a mile from Tree of Life on the same tree-lined street in Pittsburgh's East End.

JENSEN: So I offered in the letter, if you need space for worship or meeting or offices, it's yours.

O'DRISCOLL: Tree of Life was the largest of three congregations the massacre displaced from the building it called home for 65 years. Even as the community continues to grieve and recover, Tree of Life has held weekly services at another nearby synagogue. High Holiday services are more heavily attended than worship the rest of the year, and Tree of Life's host didn't have room.

BARB FEIG: High Holidays are prime time for Jewish synagogues, right?

O'DRISCOLL: Tree of Life executive director Barb Feig says Calvary was the first group to offer help of that kind.

FEIG: It was just such an overwhelmingly wonderful gesture of love for them to have made this offer.

O'DRISCOLL: About 800 congregants were expected at Calvary for Rosh Hashanah. Next week comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. Calvary ushers will volunteer alongside Tree of Life ushers. Last week, Tree of Life brought in a portable ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, along with its own prayer books, prayer shawls and yarmulkes. But Feig says Calvary is making its whole facility available.

FEIG: They're making accommodations with their preschool so that we can have a babysitting room. They've made accommodations for us to have our youth service up in their choir room.

O'DRISCOLL: Jensen, the Calvary pastor, says the decision to invite Tree of Life was easy.

JENSEN: What we hope is that people see - where can I help serve and love my neighbors in whatever our context may be? This is what we're doing right now to live that out.

O'DRISCOLL: Feig sees Calvary's hospitality in the light of the Jewish moral emphasis on actions.

FEIG: And it is those actions that give true meaning to your life and true meaning to the kind of person that one is.

O'DRISCOLL: The fate of Tree of Life's own longtime home remains undecided. While congregants say they are committed to worshipping again at the site, discussions over whether to raze the building or renovate it continue. But this year, they will celebrate the High Holidays at Calvary, dozens of whose own parishioners planned to join them. For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bill O'Driscoll