‘A very special person:’ Toronto native Joyce Fienberg killed in Pittsburgh


TORONTO — A woman who grew up in Toronto and celebrated many of life’s milestones at the city’s oldest Jewish temple is being remembered as a “very special person.”

Joyce Fienberg, 75, was one of 11 people killed when authorities said a gunman expressing hatred of Jews opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Fienberg spent most of her career as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, retiring in 2008 from her job studying learning in the classroom and in museums.

But before that she was a member of the Holy Blossom Temple community in north Toronto, where a photo of her as a teen still adorns the temple’s “wall of honour.”

Rabbi Yael Splansky, who has worked at Holy Blossom for 20 years, says she never knew Fienberg personally, although she wishes she had.

She says she’s “already hearing a lot of memories about her” from members of the congregation who knew her.

“I know there’s a whole generation of Holy Blossom members who grew up here with her, who went to school with her and celebrated her wedding day here at Holy Blossom,” Splansky said in an interview on Sunday.

On Saturday, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and opened fire during worship services, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him.

The victims’ ages range from 54 to 97, and they include a pair of brothers and a husband and wife. Six people were injured in the attack, including four police officers.

The suspected gunman, 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers, is accused of dozens of offences, including federal hate crime charges. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Monday.

He expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that “all these Jews need to die,” authorities said.

Splansky said she first heard of the attack toward the end of her own Saturday morning service, which included a bar mitzvah and a wedding celebration.

“It was a typical, joyful Shabbat here,” Splansky said.

“We were concluding the service with our joyful closing song, when one of the guests of the bar mitzvah family actually, came up to me and whispered in my ear.”

The news “spread very quickly through the congregation,” Splansky said, and as the day unfolded it became apparent that one of the victims had ties to Toronto.

“None of us got much sleep last night,” she said, adding that it was confirmed Sunday morning that Fienberg was among the dead.

Deanna Levy, a spokeswoman for Holy Blossom, said the temple had services Sunday morning.

“Right now we are just offering comfort to families…. We are just trying to stay strong,” said Levy.

Splansky lamented what she called a “worrisome” rise in anti-Semitic sentiment, saying members of her own congregation have been targeted, particularly at high schools and university campuses.

However, she takes strength by looking at the Holy Blossom temple itself, built in 1938 — a time “when anti-Semitism was really raging in Toronto,” she said.

“For our ancestors to have built that with such pride — to say, ‘We are part of the Canadian landscape, and we are proud citizens of this country, and we will contribute to it and help to build it’ — that was real courage,” she said.

“We should take strength from them, from that earlier generation, that really saw the worst of what history can bring. And we can face our future with greater hope.”

— with files from The Associated Press

Adam Burns and Alanna Rizza, The Canadian Press