Mourners of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. An Arab Israeli family. An extraordinary gift.
By late 2018, Eihab Falah was extremely ill. The 25-year-old Israeli, a member of the Arabic-speaking Druze community, had a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation had done little to halt the disease’s progress. Unable to help further, Eihab’s doctors in Israel proffered painkillers and the telephone number of a hospice; surgery, they said, wasn’t an option.
His parents and four siblings refused to accept the prognosis. Eihab’s two sisters — doctors themselves — combed the medical world for help. There have only been about 350 documented instances of the cancer, sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma. But ultimately, they found a surgeon in Pittsburgh who had operated on a few such cases. The surgeon agreed to take on Eihab as a patient, and the family prepared to fly to America, anxious but hopeful.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was in the initial throes of trying to recover from the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman had opened fire on worshipers at Tree of Life synagogue, a few blocks from my house in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The man killed 11 and wounded six before being arrested by the police. The shooter — an avowed white supremacist who told law enforcement, “I just want to kill Jews” — has pleaded not guilty to 44 criminal counts; he faces the death penalty and is still awaiting trial. He was allegedly motivated by the work of some congregants who had been helping to resettle refugees in Pittsburgh.
In the massacre’s aftermath, agents from the FBI’s Victim Services Response Team descended on the city with, among other things, pamphlets and workbooks explaining what residents should expect in the ensuing months. (Yes, the FBI has a special unit devoted entirely to helping communities recover from mass shootings and terrorism.) Titled “Phases of Collective Trauma Response,” one handout showed a squiggly graph with a peak (Heroic Phase) immediately after a shooting, then a deep valley (Disillusionment Phase), followed by a long, slow upward trend (Rebuilding and Restoration Phase). According to the graph, it takes a community 24 to 60 months to recover — which put Pittsburgh smack in the Disillusionment Phase at the end of 2018. That was when the Falahs landed among us in Squirrel Hill.
Eihab Falah grew up in Kofr Smea, a village in Israel’s Upper Galilee where his mother, Fadeeleh, traced her roots back four centuries. He had four siblings. When I visited the family in Israel in August 2019 while reporting this story, Fadeeleh — who had recently retired from teaching Islamic and European history to middle-schoolers — told me that the two eldest, Eihab’s sisters Batla and Eva, had been model children: studious, serious, dutifully mastering musical instruments when pressed by their parents. The boys, on the other hand, just wanted to play sports.
But squeezed in between his brothers — Naseeb, the next oldest, and Rami, the youngest — Eihab also possessed a quiet charisma that made the others look up to him. His sisters called Eihab “The Guy We Lean On” and, because of his muscular build, “The Hulk.” His favorite moniker, however, the one that stuck, was “Captain” — bestowed on him by a friend of Eva’s who thought he had a commanding presence.
Eihab’s physicality and composure made him a candidate for an elite Israeli army unit when he was conscripted. Druze men are among the rare non-Jews in Israel who serve the same three years of military duty after high school as their Jewish counterparts. Adherents of the Druze religion — a monotheistic sect begun in the 11th century — number around 143,000 in Israel, or less than 2 percent of the population; like their co-religionists, who live mostly in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Israeli Druze maintain a fierce loyalty to their country of residence.
Eihab breezed through the arduous physical training and was ultimately made squad commander of a dozen soldiers — all of them Jewish. Then, in the middle of one night, Eihab called Eva. He was weeping. As a native Arabic speaker, he had been asked to accompany a mission to pick up a suspected Palestinian terrorist from his home in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Eihab thought they would simply arrest the man and take him into custody. Instead, the soldiers violently broke down the door of the suspect’s house and rushed inside shouting, ransacking drawers and closets, rousing terrified family members from their beds with cocked submachine guns. Amid the chaos, Eihab noticed a small girl perched on a sofa in the dark, crying hysterically.
“What did you do?” Eva asked.
“I sat down and held her,” said Eihab, trying to stifle his sobs. “I just held her.”
Like his parents and siblings, Eihab had always been proud to be Israeli. But this and other distressing, even humiliating, experiences in uniform raised profound questions. He would later say to Eva: Why put myself in harm’s way for people who see me — an Arabic-speaking non-Jew — as the enemy? Or even less than human?
His army service convinced Eihab not to pursue a career in the military. Instead, after being discharged, he worked in security for the Israeli railway system during the day to earn money for university and followed a punishing physical training regimen at night. A star of his regional youth-league basketball team while in high school, he had dreams of playing collegiate ball in the United States. But it soon became clear that a knee injury would prevent him from playing basketball at an elite level.
Forced to reconsider his future, Eihab had a kind of epiphany: He could stay in athletics by becoming a sports-medicine doctor. Batla was a cardiologist; Eva had almost finished medical school — why not him? In the spring of 2018, Eihab enrolled in a pre-med course, was accepted at a university in Italy, and began learning Italian. His life, it seemed, was finally about to begin in earnest.
Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood is the kind of place that people never leave. My next-door neighbor, a septuagenarian, raised her children in the house she grew up in. As did my across-the-street neighbor. When the elderly couple on the corner decided to relocate to a nearby apartment, their middle-aged daughter moved right back into the sprawling Tudor-style home of her girlhood, along with her husband. Of course, they had migrated only a block away while raising their kids. You’re not truly a Pittsburgher unless you can claim deep roots. Having come here just 10 years ago, my husband, daughter and I were mere seedlings.
Pittsburgh has had well-documented ups and downs: a rise to prominence as a producer of steel, followed by an economic collapse along with the rest of the Rust Belt, followed by a new identity as a medical and academic hub and hipster darling. Squirrel Hill, however, has consistently been an urban Jewish enclave for decades. Jews from Germany, and later Eastern Europe, flocked to Pittsburgh from the mid-1800s onward. The newcomers settled in neighborhoods around the city but by the 1930s had coalesced in Squirrel Hill. And that’s where many of them stayed — even as much of the country’s urban Jewish populace left for the suburbs a few decades later amid a larger trend of White flight.
Like any family, the Falahs could not accept the judgment. “This was not how my brother’s life was supposed to turn out,” Batla told me.
The neighborhood’s Jewish character is unmistakable. The Jewish Community Center’s clock tower, looming over the main commercial intersection at Forbes and Murray avenues, tells the time with Hebrew letters. Within the neighborhood’s 2.9 square miles, a dozen or so synagogues provide for believers of varying ritualistic stripes; the streets on Saturdays are dotted with congregants walking to and from Shabbat services. A local matchmaker does a brisk business.
The Jewish population accounts for about 40 percent of Squirrel Hill’s approximately 28,000 residents — meaning that Jews and gentiles have always lived cheek-by-jowl here. People tell the story of a six-alarm fire years ago that tore through Beth Shalom, one of the area’s largest synagogues, causing massive damage to the structure. The synagogue’s director was reportedly inundated with offers of support afterward, not only from the Jewish community but from non-Jewish institutions and residents as well. A fitting sort of response, given that Fred Rogers, the revered children’s television personality who always preached compassion, made his home in Squirrel Hill just a few blocks from me. It is, quite literally, Mister Rogers’s neighborhood.
Eva was vacationing with a cousin in Portugal during a break in her medical training in the summer of 2018 when she received a text from home: Eihab had been hospitalized with blinding headaches. His doctor had at first suspected sinusitis. But after a course of antibiotics failed to relieve the pain, the doctor ordered a scan, then a biopsy when the image revealed a mass. Eva flew home immediately.
The diagnosis a couple of days later of sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma was devastating. Rare, difficult to treat and exceedingly aggressive, the malignancy had already penetrated Eihab’s right eye socket. Besides causing the unbearable headaches, pressure from the tumor was also making Eihab’s right eyeball bulge. He started on the first of three rounds of chemotherapy almost immediately, after Batla pulled strings to get him admitted to her hospital. The gastrointestinal effects of the three-drug toxic brew were swift and debilitating; one of Eva’s professors likened it to an artillery barrage. “The doctors saw this big, strong young man, a tiger, and decided they could throw everything at him,” Eva told me. Eihab didn’t leave his hospital room during the six-day regimen except to step outside to smoke marijuana, which his oncologist prescribed to combat nausea. He lost 15 pounds. By the third day, though, his eye had receded, and the headache lifted. The drugs were clearly working.
During a break in treatment, Eihab stayed with Batla and her husband, Khalid, in their Jerusalem apartment. Eva, who was doing her medical school rotations at Batla’s hospital, also lived with them. One morning, Eihab yelled from the shower, “Eva, my hair is falling out! I’m going to be bald!” Naseeb and Rami were visiting at the time, along with a male cousin. The boys decided to make a party of it. While Eva shaved Eihab’s head, they gleefully shaved theirs, too. And memorialized it, of course, on social media.
At the conclusion of the final rounds of chemotherapy — which Eihab tolerated somewhat better — imaging showed the tumor in almost complete remission. The family was jubilant — no one more so, perhaps, than Rami, who had left his restaurant job in the south by then and moved to Jerusalem to be with his adored older brother. “He was battling, battling, battling,” Rami told me, “so this was great news.” Now Eihab just had to take a short break before beginning radiation treatment that would, with any luck, finish off the tumor completely. He and Rami spent the time planning a motorcycle trip across Europe and maybe even South America.
Ten days later, the torturous headaches returned. Eihab’s right eye again began to bulge. A scan showed the tumor had grown back to almost the same size as when first discovered. “I took all this poison,” Eihab said to Eva bitterly, “and for what?” The oncologist immediately began the radiation treatments: six days a week for nearly two months. Eihab developed a terrible fungus in his mouth and throat and could barely eat. He dropped 25 pounds. Still, he managed to finish the full course, along with a new round of chemotherapy.
One week after completing the therapies, the white of Eihab’s right eye swelled so badly he couldn’t close the lid. The tumor was now larger than when it was first diagnosed, and extended into a network of channels between the brain’s outermost covering. His doctors were at a total loss. For four punishing months, they had subjected Eihab to a chemical and radiological bombardment — only to have the cancer reappear within days. There was nothing more they could do.
“The people here are amazing,” Fadeeleh texted Eva in Jerusalem. “I don’t understand it. We’re strangers to them.”
Like any family, the Falahs could not accept the judgment. “This was not how my brother’s life was supposed to turn out,” Batla told me. As doctors, she and her sister were determined to use the one medical weapon that had yet to be deployed: surgery. But no one would consider operating because of the tumor’s proximity to Eihab’s brain. That is, until a head-and-neck-cancer expert at another hospital finally suggested a technique capable of destroying tissue precisely; the procedure wasn’t available in Israel, the doctor said, but he knew of a colleague in Pittsburgh who was a specialist.
The Falahs were now in a race to figure out how to pay for the operation. Israel’s national health insurance organizations, which cover all citizens, will generally foot the bill for certain treatments not obtainable in the country. Still, the family would have to front the funds before the surgery. The Falahs had to come up with $250,000 — and fast.
Eihab’s father, Zaid, who worked as a production manager for a machine-parts manufacturer, sold some tracts of land in the village; Eihab sold his car. That still left them about $125,000 short. Desperate, Eva opened her Facebook page and wrote a post in Arabic, Hebrew and English, detailing Eihab’s battle with his illness and asking for donations: “Our last hope to save his life is a very complicated and costly neurosurgery in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. … Therefore every little help is a great help!” She added a photograph of Eihab and closed her computer.
Within hours, Eva’s cellphone was flooded with messages; her online appeal had, in effect, gone viral. The owner of a printing business near Kofr Smea had copied it, churning out reams of posters with Eihab’s picture. He drove around distributing them to the dozen or so villages that make up the Galilee’s Druze enclave. Cars with loudspeakers that usually wound their way through the hilly streets announcing weddings or funerals instead broadcast details of Eihab’s story. Several villages set up collection boxes; those with Christian residents placed them in their churches.
Forty-eight hours later, nearly $600,000 had been raised. Eva had to write a post asking people to stop. The gestures of support, both verbal and monetary, spoke to the tightly woven communal fabric of Druze society. Sitting in their Jerusalem apartment and watching all this transpire, the Falahs were overwhelmed, particularly Eihab. An intensely private person, he had previously opposed posting anything about his situation on social media — then watched with a sense of wonder as the unforeseen generosity poured in.
The Falahs booked their plane tickets. It was, as Eva said, their last hope.
The morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh felt typical for autumn in these parts: chilly, drizzly, gray. Late as usual, my husband, Dennis, and I were rushing to go to Shabbat services when my cellphone rang. It was Noa, our daughter, who was attending university in Philadelphia. “Where are you?” she asked frantically. “Don’t go out! Don’t leave the house! I just saw a news alert that says there’s an active shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue.”
Dennis turned on the television. A swarm of helmeted police SWAT team members in camouflage flak jackets, guns at the ready, surrounded Tree of Life synagogue (which also housed two other congregations, New Light and Dor Hadash). Evidently a gunman was inside; he had shot an unknown number of people. We stood there stunned, watching, unable to sit, unable to breathe almost. I suddenly realized that I’d been hearing an incessant wail of sirens for the past hour; living only a few blocks from the Squirrel Hill police station, one became oblivious to the sound, a kind of ambient wallpaper. Our phones exploded with messages from people wanting to know if we were safe.
Toward evening, Dennis and I walked the few blocks in a light drizzle to Squirrel Hill’s business district. An impromptu vigil for the 11 dead and six wounded had been organized by students from a local high school. People clogged the main intersection — which had been closed off — as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, the sound system was faulty, and you could barely hear what was being said. But it didn’t matter. It just felt good to be there with everyone: the families with young children in rain slickers, the 30-somethings trying to restrain their dogs, the university students humped under backpacks. Many held up signs — “Hate & Violence Are Not The Answer,” “Love Thy Neighbor” — and lit candles in the gloaming.
The names of those killed were released the following day: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger. Their funerals began a few days later. Hundreds of people attended the ceremonies, which were held among various synagogues and venues over the course of the week. Hundreds more were turned away for lack of space. The usual comfort provided by the rituals seemed, at times, overshadowed by the staggering necessity of burying so many in so short a time. (Jewish tradition requires interment as soon as possible.) The funerals were inescapable. I watched as one temporarily halted traffic in Squirrel Hill, its cortege slowly coiling around the streets toward a cemetery. Scores of mourners followed on foot behind the hearse. Girls from a neighborhood religious school lined the sidewalk as the procession passed, holding one another for support, weeping. People came out of buildings and stood in silence.
When the funerals concluded at week’s end, the journalists flew back to Washington and New York and wherever else they came from. The television vans drifted away. The last of the victims’ families finished sitting shiva, the seven-day mourning period following burial, after which they would begin easing back into life in the wake of tragedy. As would the wider community.
“After a tragedy such as a mass shooting, people are desperate to make any kind of human connection,” says counselor Stefanie Small.
But how? How to return to normality when so many Pittsburghers felt violated and vulnerable? Clearly, the community’s anguish couldn’t begin to compare with that of the families of the dead and the injured. I wasn’t a member of any of the three affected synagogues; my grief, our grief, was of a different sort, what psychologists refer to as vicarious, or secondhand, trauma that affects the wider population after such violent events. According to Stefanie Small, the director of counseling services at Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh (JFCS), 10 to 20 percent of the surrounding populace will suffer a diagnosable traumatic response to a mass shooting. In the Squirrel Hill Zip codes alone, that amounted to as many as 5,600 people. “It may be adjacent or vicarious trauma,” she said, “but it’s trauma nonetheless.”
Everything had changed. One’s sense of safety — however naive and illusory — was gone forever. No matter that the storefronts in Squirrel Hill now sported posters reading, “STRONGER THAN HATE,” the words nestled alongside a Star of David and two other starlike shapes (a deeply affecting take on the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers). At times the motto seemed merely aspirational.
Not that people weren’t trying to help. JFCS offered drop-in support groups at the Jewish Community Center six days a week. There we could cry, talk to a clinician, have a comforting massage; one woman who wandered in just wanted someone to hold her hand for 10 minutes. I even walked around Squirrel Hill hanging up little crocheted Stars of David that were made by well-wishers from around the world — a project that was the brainchild of two New York women who had created a crafting Facebook group in solidarity with Pittsburgh. Anything to try to heal.
The Falahs — Eihab, Zaid, Fadeeleh, Batla and Rami — arrived in Pittsburgh a few weeks later, in mid-December. (Eva and Naseeb would soon follow.) The community’s unexpected deluge of support began almost immediately.
Tsipy Gur, an Israeli expat living in Pittsburgh, knew of the Falahs from an acquaintance back in the Galilee and had been in contact with them before their arrival. She asked a friend, Michael Bernstein, if he had any idea where they could lodge. Michael, in turn, found himself proposing an apartment above the three-car garage at his Squirrel Hill home. Bright and airy, it had enough beds for everyone and a small galley kitchen where Fadeeleh could cook. The Bernsteins had never loaned out a part of their home to strangers, but Michael’s wife, Amy, gave the Falahs a key to the main house, which attached to the apartment.
Each morning, the Falahs set out for the dizzying array of preoperative tests at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Amy texted Batla frequently to find out how they were progressing. Her interest was purely professional at first; Amy worked as a nurse at a nearby hospital. But it quickly became more than that, especially when the family began stopping at the main house to talk each time they returned. The Bernsteins’ teenage son, AJ, and daughter, Charly, took to wandering over to the apartment to spend time with the younger Falahs. Before long, Michael and Zaid were yammering away on all manner of subjects late into the night.
Amy told me that she soon began urging Fadeeleh and the others to stay in the main house with them. “It was remarkable how fast they felt like so much more to us than just visitors,” she said. Wary of imposing, Fadeeleh demurred.
By week’s end, there was no question that Amy would accompany the family when they met with Eihab’s surgeon before the operation. He looked grim. The last brain scan showed the tumor was now significantly larger than what the doctor had seen on the original image sent from Israel. So large, in fact, that it couldn’t be entirely excised. The surgeon said they’d use chemotherapy and radiation on the remaining portion, but in the end, the procedure might just be palliative — not curative.
Batla could barely keep from bursting into tears. Not curative? To have traveled all this distance — and not be healed? She glanced at Amy, then at her brother. “I came here to do the operation,” said Eihab, “and I’m going to do the operation. And if there’s something else to do afterwards, I’ll do that, too.”
Tsipy drove them all to the hospital on the morning of the surgery. Eihab was in high spirits. “You’ve got my name wrong,” he said after a nurse fastened a plastic identification bracelet around his wrist.
“Wrong?” she asked, hastily checking a list of the day’s surgical patients.
“You forgot ‘captain.’ I’m Captain Eihab.”
Once he was wheeled away for the operation, the family followed Eihab’s progress on an electronic board in the waiting area. Anat Talmy soon joined them, bringing bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. Anat, a software engineer who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, had never laid eyes on the Falahs until Tsipy introduced them to her a week prior. Since then, she’d already gone out to lunch with them a couple of times, given them a ride to an appointment, dropped by the apartment for a visit and taken Batla for a hike in the woods behind her house. Now here she was, sitting with the family through the long hours of waiting, staying until she had to retrieve her four children from school. “I just wanted to do more to help them get through this terrible experience,” Anat told me.
Anat took it upon herself to post an appeal for help on social media to Pittsburgh’s Israeli community — a request that, like Eva’s Facebook post, quickly gained a life of its own. People were soon showering the Falahs with meals, grocery store gift cards, offers of rides, even therapeutic massages. Then they started turning up for visits; Anat had never seen such an avalanche of support from her fellow expats.
In the days following the surgery Anat asked another friend of Tsipy’s, Nina Butler, to create a page for Eihab on her website, which assisted mostly Orthodox Jewish families traveling to Pittsburgh for medical treatment. Debbey Altman-Diamant was among those in the community who signed up to cook a dinner. But not just your usual casserole. She researched Druze cuisine, scoured the city for ingredients, then prepared several traditional dishes — all because she thought the Falahs might be missing their food from home.
“The people here are amazing,” Fadeeleh texted Eva in Jerusalem. “I don’t understand it. We’re strangers to them.”
After the operation, the Falahs were mostly optimistic. True, Eihab’s head swelled massively and his headaches persisted in all their agonizing intensity — something his doctor found baffling, given that he had removed much of the tumor, along with Eihab’s right eye and part of his cheek. Eihab nonetheless managed to maintain his sense of humor. Annoyed at the nurses checking his cognitive functions by constantly asking him to repeat his particulars, he took to greeting any medical personnel who set foot in his room with, “I’m-Eihab-Falah-twenty-five-years-old-born-on-the-second-of-March-1993-I’m-in-the-hospital-in-Pittsburgh-Pennsylvania.”
Then, one afternoon about a week into his recovery, Eihab’s legs suddenly buckled beneath him while he was being helped to his room by Zaid and Eva; he couldn’t will them to move. Eva noticed that the pupil in his remaining eye was so dilated it virtually covered the iris. The doctor rushed Eihab to the intensive care unit and ordered tests.
The next day, Amy went along with Eva when she met Eihab’s neurosurgeon to discuss the results. Michael waited with the rest of the family in the lounge; Eva didn’t want to have to translate simultaneously for her parents while trying to concentrate on what the doctor said. He minced no words: Eihab now had a complication — leptomeningeal NUT sinonasal carcinomatosis — of his original cancer, whose cells had permeated his cerebral spinal fluid. Because of its extreme rarity, an effective treatment was unknown. After the neurosurgeon left, Eva sat in silence for a moment. “How am I going to tell my parents?” she asked Amy.
Marlene Behrmann Cohen stopped by the hospital a couple of hours later, while the Falahs were still trying to absorb the grievous news. A professor of neuroscience at nearby Carnegie Mellon University — who still spoke, despite decades in North America, with the accent of her native Johannesburg — Marlene had learned of the Falahs through Nina’s website; now, she was a regular visitor. Eva told her the news and asked what the family should do now. “It’s difficult enough for Americans to navigate the medical system,” Marlene replied, hugging her. “Let me try.”
Over the next several days via email, Marlene pulled together a group of fellow scientists and medical doctors to thrash out ideas for any possible type of treatment. She waded into the labyrinthine world of clinical trials. She petitioned oncologists and hospital executives and any other authority who would take a phone call — ultimately helping the Falahs secure permission for the experimental use of a particular chemotherapy drug.
Eihab was now on a ventilator, one of the Falahs always by his bedside, holding his hand. The rest of the family members were always in the nearby lounge, ringed by a constant stream of visitors and a low babble of Arabic, Hebrew and English. Michael invariably stayed until the last visitor left. Depending on whose turn it was to sleep on the lounge floor, Eva or Batla would inflate an air mattress and make up a bed; either Rami or Naseeb retired to Eihab’s room to spend the night in a recliner. Michael would drive everyone else back to the carriage house. He became wistful, almost tearful, recounting those nights: the sense of friendship, of community, of caring.
I came late to the story of the Falahs and Pittsburgh, having learned of it from Marlene, who is a friend of mine. The more I dug into the saga, the more I couldn’t help wondering: Had all these people who helped the Falahs been working, if only subconsciously, through their own trauma and grief?
Not everyone was inclined to make the link between Tree of Life and the Falahs when I asked them. “We’re Israelis,” Anat said. “We’re used to these kinds of attacks.” Debbey, Marlene and Nina — while admitting how deeply the shooting affected them — instead spoke of compassion, and having had an ill family member or friend, as their motivations. Anat, too. And Nina echoed, virtually verbatim, what they all said drew them most strongly to the Falahs: “How could we not fall in love with their kindness, their devotion to one another, their dignity?”
All that held true for Michael as well. But he also saw a connection between Tree of Life and the Falahs. He told me that he and AJ had heard the rapid-fire gunshots from their kitchen while eating breakfast. He described feeling raw after that morning. Helpless, too. Giving the Falahs a place to stay, trying to ease their pain, doing something tangible — all, he said, were balm to his post-shooting despair. “It was so comforting,” Michael explained, “to be able to offer them comfort.”
No one could control what happened at Tree of Life, any more than they could Eihab’s fate. The one thing they could control was to surround the Falah family with love.
There is certainly a tradition in this town — long predating the Tree of Life massacre — of Jews helping other Jews, Jews helping Israelis, Israelis helping other Israelis. And yet, Nina said that in all the years she had being doing this kind of work, she had never witnessed anything like the support and succor showered on the Falahs. Nor had Anat. It seemed possible, to me at least, that something more was at play.
Stefanie Small, of Jewish Family and Community Services, agreed. “After a tragedy such as a mass shooting, people are desperate to make any kind of human connection,” she told me. “The warmth that comes from those connections, the feeling of being able to do something good, makes us believe that the world as we knew it hasn’t ended.” Perhaps, mired as we all were in what the FBI’s handout described as the Disillusionment Phase, the profound bond that many members of the community forged with the Falahs provided a way into the next phase — that of Rebuilding and Restoration.
And how did the Falahs, in the midst of their anguish, feel about the way they were greeted in Pittsburgh? Astonished, to say the least. At times, overwhelmed by the constant attention. But also grateful. Zaid told me that when they returned to their village, relatives asked how the family could have withstood the ordeal alone. “We never felt alone for one minute,” he replied. “We only felt surrounded by love.”
The Falahs were everything the Pittsburgh shooter had railed against on social media: They spoke a different language, ate different foods, practiced a religion other than Christianity. But it was precisely their humanity — the very thing the shooter sought to obliterate — that made so many here want to help them. And in helping the Falahs, they seemed to have helped themselves.
In the end, I can’t tell you exactly what role the Tree of Life shooting played in the story of Eihab Falah. What I can tell you is that the two events, coincidentally or not, happened side by side: that a broken community poured its heart into helping a broken family from far away. No one could control what happened at Tree of Life, any more than they could Eihab’s fate. The one thing they could control, the one thing within their power, was to surround the Falah family with love. And that’s precisely what people in Pittsburgh did.
Despite the chemotherapy, despite all efforts to employ every possible cure, Eihab was slowly shutting down. He stopped moving his legs, then gradually ceased to respond when asked to squeeze someone’s hand. His pupil no longer reacted to light. Nearly six weeks into what was supposed to have been a two-week stay, the doctors declared Eihab brain dead. He would have to be taken off the ventilator.
Eva and Batla begged for just one more test to determine if any brain activity, anything at all, could be detected; barring that, they begged for more time. It would take days to arrange to transport a coffin home. Fadeeleh couldn’t bear the thought of Eihab’s body sitting in a refrigerator until then.
Ultimately, Eihab remained alive for 48 more hours. On the designated morning, the Falahs gathered around Eihab’s bed one last time. They stood in silence as a doctor switched off the machine — silence because, in keeping with the Druze belief in reincarnation, they wanted Eihab’s soul to leave peacefully to help ensure that his reborn self would have a tranquil beginning. Slowly, the line on the monitor that measured his heartbeat went flat.
Although Eihab would have his official funeral back in Kofr Smea, Zaid wanted a memorial service in Pittsburgh to honor him among those who had become close to the Falahs. Scores of people attended the ceremony, which took place a few days later. Eihab lay in his coffin in the chapel of a Jewish funeral home, dressed in a tuxedo. Never able to celebrate him as a groom in life, Fadeeleh wished to send her son off looking his best and had dispatched Naseeb and Eva with Michael to buy the most elegant outfit they could find. White flowers — supplied by Marlene and her husband — flanked the coffin, as did poster-size photographs: Eihab in his army uniform, a live snake wrapped around his neck; in sunglasses and backward baseball cap; at Batla’s wedding.
As the family entered the chapel from an anteroom, everyone gasped: Batla, Naseeb and Rami wore shirts bearing the now-iconic “Stronger Than Hate” logo. Many of the mourners began to weep. Seth Adelson, the rabbi at Beth Shalom synagogue who had visited the family at the hospital several times, recited a portion of Ecclesiastes — which is also sacred to the Druze — and a traditional Jewish prayer for Eihab’s soul. Michael, Marlene, Anat and Nina all spoke; Zaid gave his eulogy in Hebrew, as Batla’s husband, Khalid, translated into English.
When it was Batla’s turn, she read a tribute to Eihab’s life, closing with a riff on Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”:
“O Captain, our Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;
My brother does not feel my arm,
he has no pulse nor will;
His ship is anchored safe and sound,
its voyage closed and done.”
The Falahs’ suffering ended up binding members of the community and the family together in ways neither group could have imagined. Anat, Debbey, Marlene and Nina remain intimately connected to the Falahs. All four have visited the family in Israel.
The Bernsteins and the Falahs, meanwhile, now consider themselves one clan. Every milestone — Eva’s completion of medical school, Rami’s exemption from the military — is celebrated jointly by way of a WhatsApp family group chat. Before the pandemic, the Bernsteins traveled with their four children to Israel to honor Charly in a naming ceremony, a Jewish life-cycle rite, with Zaid, Fadeeleh and the rest. Then they all went to Jordan on vacation.
As Zaid told me, “In the midst of all our sorrow, Eihab’s last gift to his family was Pittsburgh.” It’s a consoling idea. And hearing it, I couldn’t help but think that Eihab Falah had also given Pittsburgh the gift of his family.
Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor who reported from Central and South America, Mexico, the Middle East and Southern Africa. She is also the author, most recently, of “Dirty Wars and Polished Silver,” a memoir.