Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, speaks at a joint session to honor the Tree of Life victims. (Courtesy Pa. House Democrats)
The last time the two chambers of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly held a special joint session was Sept. 25, 2001.
On that day, according to House Speaker Mike Turzai, representatives and senators gathered to remember the terrorist attack that had occurred just days earlier.
On Wednesday, the Legislature again met for a joint session, the time to memorialize and honor the 11 people who were massacred inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.
“I am overwhelmed at the unified show of support,” said Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the synagogue is located.
Frankel grew up in the Squirrel Hill, which he described as the center of Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania. The neighborhood is home to more than 20 synagogues.
That includes Tree of Life, where three congregations — Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash — met until Oct. 27, 2018. That’s when law enforcement officials say an anti-Semitic gunman opened fire using an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three semi-automatic pistols.
“As people went about their lives and practiced their faiths in Squirrel Hill, a man 13 miles away immersed himself in an anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration online community,” Frankel said on the House floor. “Repeated often enough, ignored often enough, and rationalized often enough, these words create an environment in which atrocities are possible, maybe even inevitable.
“This phenomenon has cost us dearly in my community.”
During Wednesday’s ceremony, both the House and Senate passed joint resolutions declaring April 10 “Stronger Than Hate Day” in Pennsylvania, echoing the phrase embraced by Pittsburghers in the days after the shooting.
The session did not address legislation. “This is not a policy debate,” Turzai told House members before the session began.
The only person to directly mention firearms was Dor Hadash Rabbi Cheryl Klein, who lamented the frightening state of the world in her closing prayer and called for action.
Klein said we live in a time when children’s lives are compromised by “evildoers who have access to weapons of mass killing.”
“We do not want to exist in this commonwealth as strategizing to survive,” Klein said. “We desire to live in a world where we can thrive.”
The rabbi said Pittsburgh was humbled by the outpouring of support it received, but that the country must do more to combat anti-Semitism in people from a young age.
“This moment in American history and this sabbath massacre in my hometown tells us that all is not well in the republic,” Klein said. “Hate is emboldened and white supremacists are somehow mainstream.”
“We pray that we are not guilty of inaction,” she continued. “We pray that we are not guilty of complacency. We pray that we are not allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.”
During the ceremony, leaders from both chambers, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, offered remarks.
All praised Pittsburgh’s strength in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
“Please keep in mind that those who choose to commit horrendous acts like this of terror or violence can never achieve their ultimate goal, which is a triumph of hate, because our love and the compassion of our communities always comes out stronger than before,” Cutler said.
Frankel read the names of the 11 victims and included details about each of their lives. How Bernice and Sylvan Simon “died steps from where they were married 62 years before.” How Jerry Rabinowitz, a doctor who served patients with HIV when no one else would, “died searching out the wounded so that he could help them.”
“The 11 people murdered On October 27, 2018, were supposed to have years of good works ahead of them. They were givers and helpers, and they made the world better with their very existence,” Frankel said. “Without Joyce, Richard, Rose, Jerry, Cecil, David, Bernice, Sylvan, Dan, Mel and Irv working alongside of us to make the world better, we will have to take on their shares.”
Like Frankel, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa also grew up in Squirrel Hill.
“This extraordinary session is about coming forth with extraordinary resolve,” Costa said. “Our fight against hate must continue.”
He concluded by reading a Jewish prayer of comfort that was shared many times after the October massacre.
For as long as we live/
they too will live/
For they are now a part of us as/
We remember them
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