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By Andrew Exler

Last week, on June 23, a significant milestone took place: the groundbreaking for the new Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh. The new Tree of Life edifice will be much more than a synagogue; it will work to uproot antisemitism and identity-based hate through an interdisciplinary model of remembrance, education, bridging, and celebration.

As we quickly approach six-years since the tragic shooting in October 2018, this groundbreaking symbolizes our resilience and unwavering commitment to moving forward. I felt compelled to write this piece now because the journey of Tree of Life, from the darkest of times to this moment of renewal, is deeply personal and profoundly relevant to our shared identity as Jews.

I grew up and still reside in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I spent time living in the tight-knit Jewish community of Squirrel Hill and nearby suburbs. As a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue with my family, and former Board of Trustees member, the events of October 27, 2018, are forever etched in my memory. On that day, a gunman filled with hate entered my sanctuary, taking the lives of 11 beloved members of our community. The same sanctuary where I had my Bar Mitzvah and where my parents were married. This tragedy, the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, was meant to instill fear and division, but it had the opposite effect. It reinforced the strength of our community and my pride in being Jewish.

The shock and grief were overwhelming. I spent days fluctuating between anger and sorrow, feeling helpless yet determined. In those moments, I understood that we must turn our pain into purpose. Our collective response to such hatred must be unity and action.

Growing up, my Jewish identity was always a source of pride and strength. From Sunday & Hebrew school at Tree of Life to summers at Emma Kaufmann Camp with the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, and active participation in BBYO, my Jewish experiences shaped who I am. These experiences also built a network of friends and mentors who have supported me through this unimaginable tragedy.

On the morning of the attack, I was at my home in Squirrel Hill when I heard the sirens, less than a mile from the building. The news of an active shooter at my synagogue was surreal and horrifying. My immediate thoughts were of the friends and community members inside. The fear and uncertainty were paralyzing. It wasn’t until hours later that I learned the extent of the loss: Cecil and David Rosenthal, Rose Mallinger, Melvin Wax, Irv Younger, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Jerry Rabinowitz, Dan Stein, Joyce Fienberg, and Richard Gottfried. These individuals were not just names; they were cherished friends, mentors, and neighbors.

In the face of this atrocity, the response from our local and global communities was overwhelming. The outpouring of support demonstrated that an attack on one of us is indeed an attack on all of us. It highlighted the importance of standing together, especially in places of worship, which should be sanctuaries of peace and safety.

In addition to my deep connection with Tree of Life, I am the Founder and Chief Strategist at Andrew Exler Marketing, a marketing agency dedicated to providing expertise in digital marketing and social media to nonprofits, startups, small businesses, and individuals. I work with many Jewish organizations, helping them amplify their voices and connect with their communities. I often partner with JPro, where I offer digital marketing master classes to Jewish professionals, equipping them with the tools and knowledge to enhance their online presence and engagement.

As part of this new Tree of Life project, my team at Andrew Exler Marketing has been honored to work with them on their new website and social media strategy, ensuring that Tree of Life’s message of hope and unity reaches as many people as possible. This work is not just professional for me; it is profoundly personal, as Tree of Life is more than a client in the same way that Global Jewry is.

In my work with Global Jewry, I serve as the Staenberg Fellow for Marketing and Branding with the Andrew Exler Marketing team, overseeing all digital marketing needs for Global Jewry. This role enables me to combine professional skills with my passion for strengthening the Jewish community. Global Jewry plays a crucial role in connecting Jewish individuals and supporters worldwide. Our strength lies in our unity and the support we offer one another, transcending geographical boundaries. This network of solidarity is vital in times of joy and in times of sorrow.

Recently, I welcomed my first child, a daughter, in May. Her birth has deepened my appreciation for the Jewish community and the strength it provides. As I hold her, I am reminded of the importance of ensuring a safe and supportive environment for her to grow up in, surrounded by the love and resilience of our community. Her arrival has awakened in me an even stronger commitment to fostering unity and support within our Jewish family.

To the readers of GJ Connections, I urge you to lean-in to the power of our collective identity. Reach out, connect, and support each other. Whether through shared experiences, mutual support, or standing together against hate, we strengthen the fabric of our community.

If you want to connect with me, share your thoughts, or work together please reach out by clicking here to connect with me on LinkedIn, emailing andrew@andrewexler.com, or contacting me through my website, https://www.andrewexler.com/. Together, we can ensure that the legacy of those we lost continues to inspire and strengthen us.

In the words of the great Fred Rogers, a fellow Pittsburgher: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Let us be those helpers and continue to build a resilient and united Jewish community.

Thank you.

Andrew T. Exler

PS: If you don’t already do so, please ensure you are staying connected with Global Jewry by following us on social media on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

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