Four years after a synagogue attack changed her life forever, Andrea Wedner hopes to inspire the next generation to root out anti-Semitism amid ongoing reports of anti-Jewish bigotry.
For weeks, Andrea and her husband, Ron Wedner, have been working with students at Community Day School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The students’ art projects will be unveiled Thursday at a commemoration of the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the worst attack on Jews in the United States.
On the morning of October 27, 2018, worshipers gathered like any other Saturday, when a man stormed the building and shot 11 people and wounded others.
Wedner, who lost his 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, in the attack, was seriously injured. After more than a year in recovery, he felt the need to return and work more with the community.
Young people are what society depends on to make the world a better place for everyone, Wedner told CNN on Tuesday, adding, “The more they know about anti-Semitism and hate crimes, the more they can help.”
Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have been on the rise for years, with 941 incidents in 2015 and 2,717 in 2021, according to the Anti-Defamation League. And Ye, the recent anti-Semitic rhetoric from rapper Kanye West and some politicians makes one wonder if Americans have learned anything from the attack and other attacks on Jews in the United States.
Still, the Wedners said they are committed to resisting the rhetoric in honor of those who died at the Tree of Life.
“Kids have to learn at a young age that they have to accept people for who they are, and you can’t tell them not to like someone because of what they believe or what they look like,” Wedner told CNN.
The husband said it was “appalling” that some schools in the US did not want to teach about slavery and hate in schools and that it was up to people like him and his wife to help educate young people.
“I don’t think we can ever erase it,” he told CNN, adding that painful lessons from history must be taught. Wedner said “children are not born to hate” and learn from adults.
Wedner was sitting next to his mother when the gunman attacked the synagogue during Shabbat services four years ago. It’s an experience he said he’ll never forget. Sometimes, she said, she can’t believe she went through the ordeal, and while anniversaries are hard, the outpouring of community support helps.
“Time helps, but it’s not going away, it’s never going to go away,” he said, adding, “This time of year is bittersweet … but we’re honoring the lives of those we’ve lost.”
Wedner said she appreciates the support and that participating in memorial events gives her great comfort when she is around others who share her pain.
Howard Fienberg, who lost his mother, Joyce, in the attack, acknowledged that the community’s support helps make each day a little brighter.
Fienberg told CNN that since her mother’s death, she has made it a priority to serve others just as she did when her own mother was killed.
“I take seriously my responsibility to try to do the same for my synagogue in my community,” Fienberg said.
Fienberg said it’s important to be a part of the community, giving time and resources to help improve it. He added that the 11 people killed in the attack were doing this when they died.
“All of these people were important pillars of their community, whether they were well-recognized or secondary, because they were willing to give almost on a daily basis,” Fienberg said.
Ron and Andrea Wedner said that love is society’s way of eliminating hate. They, like Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, don’t like to use the word “hate.” Myers, the rabbi at Tree of Life Synagogue, previously told CNN that the word fuels bigotry, including racism and anti-Semitism.
Myers said she vowed never to say the word again, and she encourages others to do the same.
“I try to say (hate) as little as possible,” Andrea Wedner said. “It’s a wasted emotion… and it doesn’t solve anything.”
Although Fienberg will not be in Pittsburgh for Thursday’s memorial service, he said he will honor the victims in his community. Fienberg grew up in Pittsburgh but lives in Vienna, Virginia with his wife.
Like the Wedners, Fienberg said he sees young people as key to fighting hate and anti-Semitism. He said it is important for others to understand that hate is an emotion that can be used for good or bad, and that the use of the word depends on the context.
“Hating the Nazis, good; Hating an entire group of people based on skin color or religion is not good,” Fienberg said.
The Pittsburgh community is planning several events for a public memorial service to be held in Schenley Park on Thursday at 4 p.m. The theme of this year’s events is “Remember and reflect, in mind and in action”.
The Wedners and Fienberg said they hope their actions lead to a brighter tomorrow for everyone.
“There are so many more good people than there are a few who wreak havoc with hate,” said Ron Wedner. “If only good people would ignore these people, this world would be a much better place.”