We can overcome adversity: Parkland, Tree of Life survivors discuss community resilience and love

Daniel Leger struggled to rise from his seat Sunday when Rabbi Ron Symons asked for anyone in the room to stand if they had ever been shot by a gun.

Mr. Leger, who is still recovering from life-threatening gunshot wounds he suffered in the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, joined eight fellow panelists, including other survivors of mass shootings, for the “Parkland to Pittsburgh: Stronger Than Hate Town Hall.”

A gunman killed 11 and wounded seven others in the Squirrel Hill synagogue where three congregations were meeting for Sabbath morning worship.

“I remember after I was shot, lying on the steps, a feeling of real peace that I have been blessed with a wonderful life and I’m dying,” he said, sharing his story publicly for the first time.

When SWAT and medics ran into the synagogue, he reached for one of their legs.

“I remember him saying, ‘There’s one alive here,’” he said.

Nearly 350 people listened to Mr. Leger and others at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill as they threaded their individual experiences together through themes of resilience, love and gratitude.

Ivy Schamis, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was helping her students find videos of Holocaust survivors on their laptops during a history class the morning of Feb. 14, 2018, when a gunman claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty.

“Within seconds, the shooter was blasting an AR-15 through a large glass panel that runs through the center of the door,” she said from her seat next to Mr. Leger.

“Kids were trying to take cover and take books off the shelf to cover their faces …. Beautiful Nick Dworet and lovely Helena Ramsay were killed inside the classroom,” she said, naming two of her students.

Sunday’s town hall, which will air at 8 p.m.Tuesday on WTAE-TV, was the culmination of a three-day visit to Pittsburgh by students, parents and teachers from Parkland, Fla., arranged by the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement.

The Parkland community members met with students from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, held a ceremony at the Tree of Life Synagogue, visited city hall and participated in volunteer projects.

“We’re all here to turn this into strength,” said Alyssa Fletcher, a Stoneman Douglas senior who has become a community organizer around firearm legislation. “We can overcome adversity and move forward with our lives, whether it’s through activism or acts of kindness.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto met with the Parkland students for three hours on Friday.

“One by one, they told the stories of the initiatives that they’ve individually started in order to be able to make sure no one else has to suffer or join this club that nobody wants to be a member of,” Mr. Peduto said. “… We have much to learn from them.”

The town hall also brought together faith leaders and others who have suffered from gun violence, including Wasi Mohammed, Islamic Center of Pittsburgh director, who raised money for the Jewish community following the shooting; Peyton Klein, an Allderdice junior who directs the Global Minds Initiative to combat cultural intolerance; Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC; Janet Hellner-Burris, pastor of the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg; and Geraldine Massey, a counselor in Hazelwood who lost two sons to gun violence.

“Each loss is a shock,” said Ms. Massey, who began working with the Center for Loving Kindness on neighborhood gun violence in Pittsburgh prior to the Tree of Life tragedy.

“There’s an awareness that moving forward that the community at large will now look through different lenses when you see someone was killed in Homewood, or Wilkinsburg or on the North Side. This is really an awakening to do better, to start reaching out and saying just because you don’t look like me and just because you were killed in a different circumstance, your life matters to our community.”

Mr. Leger said his experience reinforced the importance of compassion.

“I cannot believe the comfort I got from the cards I received from people around the world who never met me,” he said. “So when you hear that somebody was shot in Homewood, find out an address or a church address, and send a card. Reach out. It means so much to people to know somebody cares.”

Ms. Schamis said the Parkland-to-Pittsburgh visit has been months in the making.

“I hope [a mass shooting] doesn’t ever happen again, but I hope that if there’s one thing we can spread it’s the idea that every voice is important,” she said after the town hall. “Just because I’m not black doesn’t mean I can’t stand up for someone who’s black, or a Jew, or an immigrant, or Muslim. And that’s what I try to get across to my students, and it’s resonating.”