Never forgetting that day

For the third year, Steelers players are leading the Steelers Social Justice Grant program. Players are making donations to local organizations that are having an impact on the community, and the Steelers are matching the donations. The Steelers kicked off the 2020 Steelers Social Justice Grant program in December, and it continues today with Zach Banner making a difference in the community.

Zach Banner remembers the day well.

Because quite simply, for anyone who was in Pittsburgh, and well beyond, October 27, 2018 is a day that's impossible to forget.

On that Saturday morning a senseless mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood left 11 members of the congregation dead, others injured. It also left Pittsburgh a community with a shattered heart. And the Steelers organization were among those who felt that pain.

For the team, it was a day that started off as a typical Saturday for the team, prepping for meetings and a final walkthrough before their game the next day at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns.

But as news broke, it was anything but typical. There was sadness, there was heartache.

"My first year here with the Steelers was the year the shooting took place," recalled Banner. "I remember the team meeting room, the day before the game, the Saturday the shooting took place, and we're about to play a game the next day and it just didn't feel the same."

When the Steelers took on the Browns, they honored the memory of those lost with a moment of silence. Emotions ran high for everyone.

"The next day we had a moment of silence on the field for the Jewish community and especially the Tree of Life Synagogue and it really hit my heart during the National Anthem," said Banner. "I remember tearing up because so many people were affected by this and so many people are affected to this day by anti-Semitism. It's an honor to stick up for someone who isn't represented as much, especially in the NFL."

When Banner says he believes in sticking up for them, he isn't joking. In July of 2020, Banner did a selfie video in response to anti-Semitic remarks that were made. The purpose wasn't to go on the attack, but rather to bring people together. During a time when Black Lives Matter was at the forefront, Banner wanted to make sure others who are discriminated against weren't attacked as well.

"We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times," Banner said in the video. "I want to preach to the Black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and talk about elevating ourselves.

"We can't do that while stepping on the backs of other people to elevate ourselves. That's very important to me and should be important to everybody. Change your heart. Put your arm around people and let's all uplift each other."

The night he did that video, still emotional about it, he drove to the Tree of Life Synagogue for the first time.

"I drove there at 1 a.m. to look at it because I couldn't go to sleep that night," said Banner. "I just stood on the corner for 20 minutes. It was just powerful. You could feel the energy come from the building. It's a place of worship for some people and a place of hope for others.

"It was painful and emotional both. I just don't understand how someone could do something so drastic based on how someone is. I can relate to that being a Black and brown man growing up in the United States."

The emotion he felt has continued to inspire him, and that is why he is giving back. Through the Steelers Social Justice Grant program, a program which is led by the players in an effort to engage with various factions, including law enforcement, charitable organizations, military and more to strengthen the community at large, Banner is making a difference. He has donated $5,000 to Tree of Life, with the Steelers matching the donation for a total of $10,000.

"It's not about the money to me. It's about putting a smile on people's faces," said Banner. "It's who I am. I won't be able to sleep tonight if I don't feel like I hit all cylinders.

"Pittsburgh is my home. When you feel like it's your brothers and sisters around you, the misrepresented are getting picked on, you stick up for them. Simple as that."

Banner speaking up for the Jewish community is something that hasn't gone unnoticed. Many in the community have referred to him as a 'mensch,' which translated in Yiddish means 'a good person.' And Banner is a good person.

"Mr. Banner spoke up when others didn't and we appreciate that," said Barb Feige, Executive Director of Tree of Life. "The fact that he mentioned Tree of Life and the horrific shooting that happened there and how much it impacted him was very meaningful. We are very aware the shooting had an impact beyond our congregation, our Jewish community. The ripple effect was felt. Everybody felt something about it. For Mr. Banner to articulate that, and join our fight against anti-Semitism, was very, very special, very meaningful.

"The city won't forget this, but he has a national platform as a Steelers player. It's quite meaningful that he spoke out. He wasn't a bystander. He spoke up. That what touched us.

"The Steelers profile in this community is so huge. Their presence is everywhere. To have them in our corner, we are very grateful."

The Tree of Life congregation is grateful to have the support of Pittsburgh behind them. It was a time when everyone came together and are still showing their support.

"That is Pittsburgh," said Feige. "Pittsburgh is all for one and one for all. Pittsburgh is stronger together. There is a reason there are platitudes, because there is a basic to truth to them. We are grateful for the support, the love, the healing we received in the days, the weeks, months and now two years after the shooting. We know people remember. We know people remember the 11 lives that we lost and continue to think about us and send lots of those good feelings and healing vibes our way.

"It's one of those moments that gives you the appreciation for what you have, because it can be taken away so suddenly without warning. I think in that way people got a little bit closer. They continue to cherish friends and family even more. I think COIVD has helped that too. Even though we are alone together. I think it's one of those events that makes you hug your kids longer, call your mom more often.

"We all remember where we were, what we were doing, it's one of those days. The difference between Oct. 26, 2018 and Oct. 27, 2018 is a million miles."

The Tree of Life Synagogue hasn't re-opened since the shooting, something Feige said, "we are committed to returning to the building site. Plans are ongoing for that, but we are committed to returning." In the meantime, they are holding services at another Pittsburgh synagogue, Rodef Shalom, even if they are currently holding their Shabbot services virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's a mixed blessing," said Feige. "We can't be together in person, but it allows people further away from Pittsburgh to be with us for those services. We try to come together as a community as well for activities, games, speaker presentations. Anything you can do over zoom, we do it."

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