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‘A Tree of Life’ offers lessons in empathy, solidarity

Appearing via Zoom, from left, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting survivors Carol Black and Andrea Wedner join director Trish Adlesic and local panelists Scott Lerner, Joyous Bethel and Rabbi Jack Paskoff to discuss the documentary “A Tree of Life” on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

The documentary “A Tree of Life” powerfully depicts the horror of the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the heartbreak of its aftermath.

It also illustrates how people from all walks of life can build unity against the forces of hate and prejudice, four local panelists said during a discussion preceding its screening at The Ware Center last week.

The film demonstrates a model of “ending anti-Semitism together,” said Scott Lerner, a Judaic Studies professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

Local panelists discuss the documentary “A Tree of Life” at the Ware Center in Lancaster on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. From left: Professor Scott Lerner, state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, Rabbi Jack Paskoff and Professor Joyous Bethel. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lerner joined Rabbi Jack Paskoff of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El and social work professor Joyous Bethel of Millersville University in offering remarks before the screening.

Afterward, director Trish Adlesic took the stage for a Q&A, accompanied via Zoom by two of the shooting’s survivors, Carol Black and Andrea Wedner. The event was well attended, with around 200 people filling Steinman Hall.

Eleven people died and six were wounded in the Oct. 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, making it the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Shooter Robert Bowers was tried and convicted in mid-2023 and sentenced to death.

Adlesic, a Pittsburgh native, said she was in Pittsburgh the day of the shooting and began filming just days later. Telling the story, she said was “the greatest honor of my life.”

Trish Adlesic

She is the co-director and producer of “The ABCs of Book Banning,” which is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film at the Academy Awards this Sunday.

Paskoff recalled finishing a service the day of the shooting and having someone ask him if he had heard what happened. He said he was heartened by the outpouring of local support, including the hundreds of people of all faiths who packed Shaarai Shomayim in subsequent days.

Paskoff said Jews are acutely aware they cannot assume the same base level of safety and belonging as other Americans.

“Of all the religious groups represented in the United States, Jews are consistently the most targeted,” he said. That creates a different reality, he said, and is felt on a deeply personal level.

He noted that antisemitic incidents are on the upswing and singled out the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, a year and a half before the Pittsburgh massacre.

“Something was let loose that day,” Paskoff said, something that President Donald Trump turned a blind eye to when he claimed there were “fine people on both sides.” Fine people, Paskoff said, “don’t join in a chant that says ‘Jews will not replace us.'”

Professor Scott Lerner
state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El
Rabbi Jack Paskoff
Professor Joyous Bethel

Much of “A Tree of Life” consists of interviews with survivors of the shooting and loved ones of those who died. Their testimony shows the inextricable intertwining of grief and trauma, Bethel said.

Those who survive a mass murder, she said, must not only mourn those who died, but must rebuild their “assumptive worlds” — their preconceptions around community, trust and security. The pain can be overwhelming.

“Our sense of connection to the divine and to each other is shattered,” she said. Putting the pieces back takes time, “and almost always, some pieces are missing. Some pieces don’t fit together the same way they used to. The cracks are going to show.”

Lerner drew attention to two figures in the documentary: Wasi Mohamed and Hannibal Lokumbe. Mohamed, the former director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, organized a campaign that raised more than $200,000 to pay for the shooting victims’ funerals and other expenses; Lokumbe, a Black musician and activist, commissioned survivor Audrey Glickman to play the shofar at the premiere of his composition “Healing Tones.”

Wasi and Hannibal embraced our common humanity, Lerner said: “They are pulled towards solidarity through an empathy born from identification with Jewish victims.”

He and the other panelists acknowledged the acute humanitarian crisis and ongoing suffering in Gaza, where Israel responded to Hamas horrific Oct. 7 massacre with an invasion that has resulted in tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths. Lerner said “A Tree of Life” should prompt reflection “on the conditions of possibility for empathy and solidarity.”

Smith-Wade-El, who attended college in Pittsburgh, emphasized similar themes. The documentary, he said, shows the potential of aligning “with all people seeking justice” and acknowledging “the specific humanity of all the individuals in front of us,” rather than defaulting to chauvinisms of race, creed, nationality or faith.

Wedner and Black, the two survivors, said they and other participants in the documentary felt it was important that they themselves claim their own story, rather than letting others tell it for them.

“We both feel very lucky to be alive,” Black said.

Both attended Bowers trial: It was difficult, they said, but essential to see that justice was served.

Episcopalian Pastor Martha Lester Harris, who was in the audience, is part of “Saving Lives: Ending Gun Violence,” part of a broader interfaith coalition pushing for more effective gun laws. The documentary could help in that effort, she told Adlesic.

“We want it to be used for that very purpose,” the director said. She herself has been touring the country, promoting the film and bringing it before as wide an audience as possible. Not everyone is receptive, and there has been pushback, but “I’m pretty fearless,” she said.

The portion of the synagogue where the killings took place is being torn down. This summer, a groundbreaking is planned for the complex that will replace it, which will include not only the synagogue, but an education center, a holocaust center and a memorial.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Wedner said.