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Rabbis Alex and Amy Greenbaum of Beth El Congregations in Pittsburgh in a Twitter post against gun violence in February.
Rabbis Alex and Amy Greenbaum of Beth El Congregations in Pittsburgh in a Twitter post against gun violence in February.

Native Son

Pittsburgh rabbi knew some shooting victims and is focusing on his congregation’s needs.

Barbara Lewis Contributing Writer

During the week following the Oct. 27 massacre at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Alex Greenbaum felt like he was at “ground zero.”

Above: Rabbis Alex and Amy Greenbaum of Beth El Congregations in Pittsburgh in a Twitter post against gun violence in February.

The former Detroiter, son of Cantor Sam and Mona Greenbaum, is in his 17th year as spiritual leader of the Conservative Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in Pittsburgh. His wife, Amy, is the congregation’s associate rabbi.

His synagogue is less than a 20-minute drive from Tree of Life, and many of his 435 congregants grew up there. One of the victims, Mel Wax, was the father of a congregant. And many others lost cousins. It’s a close-knit Jewish community similar to Detroit’s; just about everybody knew one of the victims or a close family member, he said.

When the news first hit, Greenbaum fielded numerous calls from congregants who have moved away from Pittsburgh. All they heard was “mass shooting,” “synagogue” and “Pittsburgh” and were panic-stricken.

Greenbaum had several other congregational deaths to deal with, in addition to those of the shooting victims, so many days were spent moving between funerals and shivah houses.

“I’m trying to focus on my congregants and their needs,” said Greenbaum, who grew up in Oak Park and West Bloomfield and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997. His father is the longtime cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.

The day after the massacre, Greenbaum and his wife visited all the religious school classrooms. They also brought in three professional counselors, though he said they were more helpful to the parents than the children.

Every family has handled the situation differently, he said. Some younger children were unaware of what happened. Others, especially those with older siblings, were more likely to have questions and concerns.

“I think we learned a lot from 9-11 about how to talk to children about this kind of thing,” he said.

Greenbaum and his wife traveled to Europe last summer and visited several synagogues, where they had to show ID and answer questions from security guards before being allowed in. It didn’t feel very welcoming, he said, but that’s what will probably happen in the United States, he predicted.

“I don’t think things will ever be the same” for synagogues in the United States, he said. Security will have to come first, welcoming second.

“I used to tell my children I remember a time before we had a color TV. I think our children will tell their grandchildren they remember a time when there were no security personnel outside synagogues, and everyone could just come in,” he said.

Barbara Lewis

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