Big news on Godbeat: President of Religion News Association wins Pulitzer for Tree of Life coverage

One of my favorite religion writers just won a Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism.

Mega-congrats to Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette!

The Post-Gazette staff — including Smith, president of the Religion News Association — earned the Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting.

That paper was cited for “immersive, compassionate coverage of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.”

I liked what David Shribman, the Post-Gazette’s executive editor and vice president, told his newsroom: “There isn’t one of us in this room who wouldn’t exchange the Pulitzer Prize for those 11 lives.”

But when the massacre occurred, they did what journalists do: They wiped their tears and reported the news as fully and compassionately as possible.

Among the 10 links on the Post-Gazette’s winning Pulitzer entry are two stories by Smith. This was the lede on the first one, by Ashley Murray and Smith:

As a gunman stalked the rooms of Tree of Life synagogue Saturday morning, Barry Werber hid in a dark storage closet thinking about his family and about “trying to stay alive.”

“Let me be very honest, I was frightened, I was scared, I have a wife at home ill, and I have a son living in Squirrel Hill, and I didn’t want to leave them.”

Mr. Werber was one of the congregants who survived the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday. Eleven others — including Melvin Wax, an 87-year-old man who hid alongside him in the closet — were killed.

Shortly before the unbelievable happened, Mr. Werber, Mr. Wax, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, and congregants Richard Gottfried, Dr. Gottfried’s sister Carol Black and Daniel Stein had arrived to the basement of Tree of Life earlier than other members of the New Light Congregation — one of three congregations meeting that morning in the building.

And this was the opening on the second piece — Smith’s exceptional reporting on Rabbi Alvin Berkun’s experience:

About 20 years ago, Rabbi Alvin Berkun gave a sermon at Tree of Life Congregation in which he said it was time to close down all the Jewish “alphabet groups.”

These were the various Jewish advocacy organizations that had sprung up in earlier generations to defend Jews against discrimination and other acts of anti-Semitism, groups known by acronyms like ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and AJC (American Jewish Committee).

It’s not that he lacked evidence for his hopeful outlook.

Rabbi Berkun, the son of European Jewish immigrants who came to this country in 1922 with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), could easily have pointed to the stained-glass windows in Pervin Chapel at Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill — windows illustrating a range of Jewish figures finding success in American spiritual, philanthropic, cultural and economic life.

The immigrants’ son was able to see a remarkable progress in interfaith relations and a particularly close cooperation with the leaders and members of the region’s predominant Catholic population. Anti-Semitism seemed at bay, pushed to the fringes.

“Was I ever wrong,” Rabbi Berkun lamented this week.

He’s alive to say that only by chance.

See more of Smith’s Tree of Life reporting from earlier GetReligion posts (here and here).

Smith posted that photo on Facebook and said:

So honored to work with these people, including my editor, Lillian Thomas; reporter Andrew Goldstein, and all my colleagues at the Post-Gazette amid bittersweet emotions for the Pulitzer committee's honoring of our coverage of the Tree of Life massacre and aftermath.

Bittersweet indeed, but the honor is well-deserved. Feel free to leave a note in the comments section congratulating Smith and his colleagues.

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