Pittsburgh Jews begin healing with ancient shiva mourning custom

By Jessica Resnick-Ault

Pittsburgh (Reuters) – Behind the deli counter at a Jewish market in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, AJay Herskowitz provides brisket and comfort to a community shaken by tragedy. 

From London to New York to Los Angeles, people sought to offer consolation to Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood following a deadly shooting in a synagogue here. They turned to the ancient Jewish custom of shiva, paying their respects by visiting the mourning families, and by sending food baskets to mourners.

At the Murray Avenue Kosher market, which often provides food for shiva visits, manager Herskowitz, who knew most of the victims personally, said he is “100-fold” busier than usual.

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Employees worked on their days off to prepare food platters, including brisket and apricot chicken dinners and lox platters. Herskowitz directed a delivery man bringing food to synagogues, homes of the shooting victims’ families, and local Jewish schools.

“Several strangers just want to make blanket donations to help anybody out,” said Herskowitz, who added that he had received an order from as far away as London.

Jewish tradition requires that bodies be buried as quickly as possible, followed by shiva, the Hebrew word for seven, the week-long period when mourners remember the dead, discuss their loss, pray and comfort one another. Also, mirrors are covered so as not to be a cause of joy or not to become preoccupied with external appearance – inappropriate in mourning or in the presence of mourners.

Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, David Mitzner Dean at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University in New York, said the importance of sitting shiva is heightened in such a tragedy.

“In a tragedy, shiva is particularly poignant in that it allows for a cathartic experience of reflecting on the lives led and not just on the way they passed. It allows us to ensure that the legacy revolves around their accomplishments and impact on the world, not overly on the tragic way in which they were taken from us,” Glasser said.


On Tuesday, mourners crowded the first three of nine funerals for the victims of Saturday’s attack by a gunman who shouted, “All Jews must die,” believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Avowed anti-Semite Robert Bowers, 46, was charged with 29 federal felony counts and was ordered held without bail on Monday. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Three more funerals were to be held on Wednesday.

“With shiva, you’re making grieving highly individual,” said Rabbi Walter Jacob of Rodef Shalom, the site of funerals for two victims. “It’s a little group who help each other,” he said.

Deli manager Herskowitz first heard about the shootings on his police radio at home – he has rabbinical permission to operate one on the Jewish Sabbath, when it is otherwise not permitted – and then alerted three other congregations in the neighborhood.

Herskowitz said he was staying busy to avoid thinking about the calamity. He did not know if he would pay shiva visits himself, but the victim he knew best, Dan Stein, was always on his mind as he prepared meals for Stein’s family and the other victims.

“I think about Dan and his wife Sharon all the time. I’ve never seen a couple melded together like they were,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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