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Tree of Life survivors working to root out antisemitism 4 years after deadliest assault on Jewish people in the US

<i>Courtesy Wedner/Mallinger Family</i><br/>Rose Mallinger was sitting with her daughter when she was killed.
Courtesy Wedner/Mallinger Family
Rose Mallinger was sitting with her daughter when she was killed.

By Justin Gamble and Dalila-Johari Paul, CNN

Four years after a synagogue attack that forever changed her life, Andrea Wedner hopes to inspire the next generation to root out antisemitism amid continued reports of anti-Jewish bigotry.

For weeks, Andrea and her husband, Ron Wedner, have been working with students at the Community Day School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The students’ art projects are scheduled to be unveiled at a memorial ceremony Thursday on the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting — the deadliest assault on Jewish people in the United States.

On the morning of October 27, 2018, worshippers had gathered like any other Saturday when a man stormed the building and gunned down 11 people and wounded others.

Wedner, who lost her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, in the attack, was severely injured. After more than a year of recovering, she felt the need to give back and work more with the community.

Young people are who society depends on to make the world a better place for everyone, Wedner told CNN Tuesday, adding, “The more they know about antisemitism and hate crimes, the more they can help.”

Antisemitic incidents in the United States have been on the rise for years, with 941 incidents in 2015 and 2,717 tracked in 2021 by the Anti-Defamation League. And the recent antisemitic rhetoric from the rapper Ye, né Kanye West, and some politicians has some wondering whether Americans learned anything from the attack and other assaults on Jewish people in the United States.

Yet the Wedners said they’re committed to countering the rhetoric while honoring those killed at Tree of Life.

“Children need to learn at a young age that they need to accept people for who they are, and they just can’t be told to not like somebody because of what they believe or what they look like,” Wedner told CNN.

Her husband said it’s “mind-boggling” that some US schools don’t want to teach about slavery and hate in schools and said it’s up to individuals like him and his wife to help educate youth.

“I don’t think we can ever eliminate it,” he told CNN, adding that painful lessons of history need to be taught. Wedner said “kids aren’t born to hate” and they learn it from adults.

‘It still feels like it happened yesterday’

Wedner was sitting next to her mother when the gunman stormed the synagogue during Shabbat services four years ago. It’s an experience she said she’ll never forget. At times, she said, she can’t believe she went through the ordeal, and while anniversaries are hard, the outpouring of support from the community helps.

“Time helps, but it doesn’t go away, it will never go away,” she said, adding, “This time of year is bittersweet … but we’re honoring the lives of those we lost.”

Wedner said she is thankful for the support and that participating in memorial events gives her great comfort when she’s around others who share her grief.

Howard Fienberg, who lost his mother, Joyce, in the attack, agreed that the support from the community helps make each day a little brighter.

Fienberg told CNN that since his mother’s death, he’s made it a priority to serve others just as his mom was doing when she was killed.

“I take seriously my responsibility to try to do the same in my own community for my synagogue,” Fienberg said.

Fienberg said it’s important to be a part of the community by giving time and resources to help make it better. He added that’s what the 11 people killed in the attack were doing when they died.

“All of these people, they were they were important pillars of their community, whether they were well recognized or in the background, because they were willing to give of themselves on pretty much on a daily basis,” Fienberg said.

Ron and Andrea Wedner said love is the way society can eliminate hatred. They, like their rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, don’t like to use the word “hate.” Myers, the rabbi at Tree of Life synagogue, previously told CNN the word fuels bigotry, including racism and antisemitism.

Myers said he took a pledge never to say the word again, and he encourages others to do the same.

“I try and say it (hate) as little as possible,” Andrea Wedner said. “It’s a wasted emotion … and doesn’t solve anything.”

While Fienberg won’t be in Pittsburgh for Thursday’s remembrance ceremony, he said he will honor the victims in his own community. Fienberg was raised in Pittsburgh but lives Vienna, Virginia, with his wife.

Like the Wedners, Fienberg said he sees young people as key to challenging hate and antisemitism. He said it’s important for others to understand that hate is an emotion that can be used for good and bad, and his use of the word depends on the context.

“Hating Nazis, good thing; hating a whole group of people based on their skin color or based on their religion, not good,” Fienberg said.

The Pittsburgh community has hosted several events leading up to a public commemoration ceremony to be held Thursday at 4 p.m. in Schenley Park. The theme for this year’s events is “Remember and Reflect, in Spirit and in Action.”

The Wedners and Fienberg said they hope their actions help lead to a brighter tomorrow for all.

“There’s so many more good people out there than there are the few that wreak the havoc of hate,” Ron Wedner said. “If those people can be pushed aside by the good people, then this world would be a much better place.”

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