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Toronto native killed in Pittsburgh attack

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From left, Pearl Bell, Joyce Fienberg and Barbara Beck had been friends since they attended Camp Kawagama in Ingleside, Ont., together when they were young. (Courtesy Pearl Bell)

A Toronto-born woman was one of the 11 people killed in the deadly attack on Pittsburgh’s Conservative Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27.

Joyce Fienberg, 75, was a mother to two sons, grandmother to six grandchildren and a staple of her Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

Before moving the United States over two decades ago, Fienberg was a member of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. She was married there and her confirmation picture from when she was 16 years old is on the shul’s wall of honour.

Joyce Fienberg, front row, second from left, is seen in a religious school photo that hangs on a wall at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. (Holy Blossom photo)

Pearl Bell has been friends with Fienberg ever since she moved from Sarnia, Ont., to Toronto, in 1956.

“I was bat mitzvah age and my father and mother decided it was time to move to the big city,” said Bell. “I really didn’t know anybody and Joyce just lived down the street from me, and somehow we clicked right away.”

Fienberg and Bell, who both attended Forest Hill Junior High School, would walk to school together, and they ended up in all the same classes in high school, said Bell. She also credits Fienberg with introducing her to the world of summer camp. The two spent “glorious” summers together at Camp Kawagama and, along with their friend Barbara Beck, called themselves the “Three Amigos.”

Bell remembers Fienberg as a kind and thoughtful friend.

“What was she like? Soft, sweet, caring, loving family. How else can I describe her? She really was the solid person. Even though she moved away to Pittsburgh when she was married and had her own profession with (her late husband) Stephen, she made sure that she came back, she always kept us connected. She was like the conduit that would assure that our friendship was never lost. And now it’s lost because of this insane world that we seem to be living in,” said Bell.

Fienberg and Bell hadn’t spoken since before the summer, but they would often text or email each other. Bell said that Fienberg was always good at responding, so when Bell learned of the shooting, she thought that perhaps Fienberg couldn’t respond, because she was visiting her son in Paris. But as time passed, Bell learned from another friend of Fienberg’s that Fienberg’s other son, who lives in the United States, hadn’t heard from her, either.

“We were hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, and so it was,” said Bell. “I guess she died just being this sweet lovely person that she always was.”

Fienberg loved her tight-knit Pittsburgh Jewish community. She was always a great “macher” at her shul, according to Bell, but after her husband died in 2016, Fienberg became even more engrossed in the Jewish community.

Bell also praised the mayor of Pittsburgh and the city’s emergency services, calling them “remarkable.” But she bemoaned the circumstances that led to her beloved friend’s death.

“My parents came over in search of the good life and safe communities and love, and you just wonder where this is all going. But we’ve got each other, we have to be strong, and we will be,” she said.

Fienberg’s brother, Robert Libman, is a congregant at the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation. The shul’s senior rabbi, Daniel Korobkin, said that everybody is heartbroken to learn of Fienberg’s murder.

“It only adds one added layer of grief to an already grief-stricken situation,” he said.

Rabbi Korobkin added that Fienberg and Libman were raised with impeccable character and Fienberg remained very close with her brother’s family. He said that in spite of the fact that the two siblings were involved with different denominations of Judaism (Libman is Orthodox), they never let that divide them. Rather, they continued to set an example by using their Judaism to bond with each other, in spite of their differences.

“Faith should never divide us, it should only bring us closer together,” he said.

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On Oct. 28, Rabbi Yael Splanksy of Holy Blossom wrote on Facebook, saying that, “This morning’s service was full. The sounds of Jews at prayer buoyed me. The faces of these good people strengthened my faith in the future. Even the drilling in the background was music to my ears, because synagogue construction is the perfect response to yesterday’s news. Our religious school children and parents gathered for prayer, too. Their voices were the sweetest of all. Balm for an aching heart.”

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