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The survivors of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting still ache a year later

A Pittsburgh police commander was driving past the red-brick home his grandfather had lived in for decades when the first radio call came through: Shots fired at Tree of Life synagogue.

Jason Lando visits Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Jason Lando visits Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.Read moreJon Gerberg

PITTSBURGH — A Pittsburgh police commander was driving past the red-brick home his grandfather had lived in for decades when the first radio call came through: Shots fired at Tree of Life synagogue.

Jason Lando stopped his city-issued Ford Explorer, the damp October leaves clinging to the tires as he radioed a dispatcher. "How many 911 calls did you get on this?" he asked.

Active shooters were rare in Squirrel Hill, but Lando had learned during his decades on the force that an isolated report often meant a false alarm.

The emergency line was flooded with calls, the dispatcher told him.

Lando floored it, speeding toward Tree of Life.

"My grandfather is inside," he thought.

As he pulled up, loud cracks of gunfire pierced through the stained-glass entryway.

"We're under fire," he shouted into the receiver while shoving the extra magazines he stored in his glove compartment into a pocket.

Shattered shards battered the ground.

Then more shots.

"Every available unit in the city needs to get here now," the police commander said. "We're taking on AK-47 fire from out the front of the synagogue."

Chaos and carnage were unfolding in front of him, inside the synagogue he'd grown up in, and all the while Lando dialed and redialed his Pop's number at every free opportunity.

The 42-year-old officer was consumed by a sickening thought: His grandfather was dead.

The Tree of Life sanctuary is still a crime scene one year later. No service has been held within its walls since Oct. 27, 2018, when a gunman killed 11 men and women, and wounded six others, in the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.

Visible reminders of the shooting linger: A fence covered with hand-drawn pictures, condolences sent from cities across the country. A weathered Star of David dangling from a nearby tree trunk. Remnants of a makeshift memorial made of fuchsia blossoms and two extinguished candles lit to honor the dead.

Visitors can walk through a leafy archway and into a garden adjacent to the temple building. In the small, sunken space, nothing seems out of place: The flowers are well-tended, a light-colored table is picturesquely positioned in the corner, and on the low walls that encase the space are small clusters of 11 stones, one for each of the lives lost.

Earlier that morning and several blocks from the synagogue, it was barely dawn when Morris Lebow woke up, ready to dress in his usual Shabbat attire: slacks, a dress shirt and a sweater. To many, the Pittsburgh native nearing his 99th birthday was the continuity in the Tree of Life congregation. Moe was a forever fixture.

Joyce Fienberg, a fellow congregant, called to wake him at 6 a.m. every morning and then accompanied him to the synagogue's morning prayer service, known as minyan.

Moe had attended Tree of Life services the evening before, but when Joyce rang Saturday morning, he felt under the weather and stayed home to rest. The shooter was still inside the synagogue when Moe learned that a man, armed with handguns and a rifle, had opened fire on his friends. His caretaker broke the news after receiving panicked calls from Moe's daughter, Roberta.

Immediately, Moe called Joyce. Each time, he got no answer.

In the 12 months since the massacre, when Pittsburgh joined the list of America's gun-violence sites, the nation has witnessed seven more mass shootings in which four or more people were killed.

Outside of the city, people now refer to the events of that Saturday morning as "Pittsburgh," said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of the nearby Rodef Shalom Congregation.

"We've joined the eponymous shorthand for senseless massacres," he said - like Newtown, Las Vegas, Orlando, El Paso, Gilroy and Poway. "It's an American acrostic of otherwise ordinary places that have been caught in the crosshairs of gun violence."

Squirrel Hill still struggles with how to heal, or whether it can, and each resident grieves differently, rattled by myriad aftereffects.

Roberta takes solace driving by the synagogue exterior; having witnessed the human carnage left behind, Lando avoids it. And then there are Moe and his morning minyan-ers, the synagogue's survivors, who had hoped to return to Tree of Life for the Jewish high holidays but have begun to realize they might never reenter.

Nearly an hour passed, from 9:55 a.m., when police learned that a gunman began firing inside Pittsburgh's oldest synagogue, before Lando's cellphone lit up with a message from his uncle. It read: "We found Pop, he's safe. His cellphone was on silent."

By then, the gunman had tried to leave the synagogue. He encountered and shot at officers before retreating into the building. Then, reports said, there was a second exchange of fire after more police resources arrived.

A SWAT team wielding high-powered rifles and wearing body armor charged into the building and took the gunman, who had been hit by multiple bullets, into custody. He was rushed to a hospital, along with four officers who had suffered gunshot wounds.

As the on-duty commander, Lando returned to Tree of Life on Saturday night with FBI agents. The team removed the corpses, leaving behind butchered wooden panels and blood-soaked shards of stained glass. It was well past midnight when Lando pulled his truck into his driveway.

Energy drained, he collapsed on the couch, still wearing the jeans and navy T-shirt he had thrown on a day earlier. He turned on the TV and, taking it in as a civilian for the first time, Lando wept. He was no longer thinking about securing a perimeter or the safety of his force. He was watching news reports of a mass shooting at his own synagogue, and plunging into years of memories.

By the time Lando saw his grandfather on Sunday, authorities had announced the names of the victims - men and women who ranged in age from 54 to 97; Joyce Fienberg, 75, was among them.

"How are you doing, Pop?" Lando asked.

Moe was inconsolable.

"All my friends are dead," was all he could say to his grandson.

In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents rose 57%, with 1,986 documented events, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a spike the civil rights group attributed to an increase of reports in high schools and on college campuses.

During the first half of 2019, the ADL recorded 780 anti-Semitic episodes in the U.S., including 163 bomb threats. During that time, seven white supremacists were arrested for attacks on Jewish targets.

What happened inside Tree of Life was a story of violence against Jews, yet the gun violence experience is an all-American story. The list of ordinary places that have been sites of gun violence include a college campus, an elementary school, a country and western bar, a gay nightclub, a Walmart, a cinema and a garlic festival.

Pittsburgh reflects a new reality for houses of worship of all faiths: that they, too, are unexpected targets for domestic terrorism.

"Now, synagogues are part of the American landscape," said Bisno, the Rodef Shalom rabbi. "And that speaks to the level of acceptance and integration in our society."

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which offers faith-based organizations security assessments and a robust guide on attack preparations, has seen an uptick in interest from Jewish and other religious groups during the 2019 fiscal year, according to assistant director Brian Harrell. This year, the agency's security advisers engaged with 520 houses of worship, a 34% increase from 2018.

Protecting houses of worship, which are typically designed to welcome outsiders, requires not only fortification but modified thinking. "We have to shift the conversation," Harrell said, "and be ready for the worst case."

Last Oct. 27, though, many synagogues - including Tree of Life - thought they were.

Before the Tree of Life attack, nearly 75% of the local Jewish temples had already learned emergency protocol and practiced active-shooter drills, according to Brad Orsini, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

There's an ongoing tension between wanting to invite members of the public inside with open arms and needing to prioritize safety. Orsini has committed to being more "security-minded."

But for some people of Squirrel Hill, simply securing their synagogues against mass shootings was not enough.

Three months after the gunman opened fire during Saturday morning services, elected officials drafted bills to curb access to firearms and a handful of community members formed an anti-gun violence group.

"It did not seem in any way complicated that we should try to prevent that from happening to somebody else," said Dana Kellerman, the community group's co-founder.

Just shy of a year after Joyce was killed, Moe visits the cemetery for the first time since her funeral. He counts how many people have visited the grave by the number of rocks laid atop her headstone and adds his own to the cluster.

According to Jewish tradition, mourners place not flowers but pebbles atop tombstones and graves. Some say it's to keep the soul in place; others believe it symbolizes a kind of permanence. Flowers may wilt, but stones will endure.

"I know exactly the chair that she sat in," Moe recalls, placing his hand on the marble stone and drawing their sanctuary seats: Moe on left and Joyce on the right, in the opposite aisle seat and two rows back.

"You were so good to me," he says. "You died too early, too early."

The irony - that all these peaceful people died so violently - will forever be hard to understand.

"Eleven friends," Moe says later, thinking of those he lost. "I'll never forget them. Some of them my best friends, just like that, in one day."

There's no blueprint for mourning or a singular root cause to correct.

"There is no one word," said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the October attack. Even after months have gone by, a community can still ache.

In the past year, the toughest part of healing for Lando has been watching Moe, his 99-year-old grandfather.

"Turning 100 should be the highlight of his life, but every time we go to dinner or get together he talks about all his friends who won't be at his birthday party," Lando said.

Moe's birthday - Saturday, Nov. 16 - falls on the Jewish yahrzeit of the shooting, the anniversary according to the Hebrew calendar.

At the conclusion of Shabbat, the Squirrel Hill community will gather for a service commemorating the 11 lives lost. Roberta had approached Myers about organizing a soiree for Moe after the memorial.

Initially, Myers was reluctant. He worried it would be difficult for Moe to feel festive.

Several days later, on Rosh Hashanah, Myers came to Roberta. He had given the matter much thought: After they honored the Tree of Life victims, he said, "We're going to celebrate your father. We need to celebrate life."

The Washington Post’s Jon Gerberg and Katie Mettler contributed to this report.

On October 27 at 5:00 pm EST, people from around the world will have the opportunity to join Pittsburgh in a public memorial service.