Joyce Fienberg was one of 11 people killed in Pittsburgh this weekend when a gunman entered a synagogue and opened fire. But she was also a former Torontonian, who’d lived out her early years in the city.
“She grew up here,” confirmed Deanna Levy, who works at the Holy Blossom Temple in midtown Toronto. Memories of Ms. Fienberg’s young life still permeate the space there. There’s a photograph from her confirmation on the wall. She was 16 years old back then and still known as Joyce Beverly Libman, according to public records.
A young man named Stephen Fienberg was a congregant of the temple back then, too. The pair would eventually be married, their partnership lasting more than 50 years until his death. The ceremony was held at Holy Blossom in the mid-1960s. But their paths actually crossed elsewhere in the city – at the University of Toronto, where both were studying as undergraduates.
Academics would come to be a defining feature of their lives together. Mr. Fienberg became a renowned statistician and his post at Carnegie Mellon University eventually brought their family to Pittsburgh, after leapfrogging across the U.S. for some time. Ms. Fienberg became active in research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research & Development Center (LRDC). She spent 25 years pursuing ways to improve classroom learning and probing questions such as the value of character.
“She joined us in LRDC in 1983,” recalled Charles Perfetti, who serves currently as the director of the centre, in a phone call Sunday. “I was always impressed by how dignified and even elegant her style was, and, at the same time, she was a very friendly and open person.”
The two had worked on separate floors, but whenever they bumped into one another and struck up a conversation, he said she had an uncommon ability to lift people up. She was earnest, he added, and well-liked. A tribute posted to the centre’s social media pages lauded Ms. Fienberg as a “cherished friend,” but also a proud grandmother. Family was a running thread through her life and her husband’s. When he died in 2016, after Ms. Fienberg had been retired for eight years, an obituary from the Statistical Society of Canada said he’d been more proud of his family than anything in the world.
The couple had two sons, who’d spread out geographically as they began their own lives with their spouses and children. One son, Anthony, lives in Paris with his wife, Magali and their five children, said Ms. Levy. Their other son, Howard, lives in Virginia, with his wife, Marnie, and their daughter. Ms. Fienberg had family left in Canada, too – a brother, Dr. Robert Libman, and his wife, Dr. Esther Libman. Thornhill, Ont. was home for them, and they were attendees of the Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation.
Though it’s been some time since Ms. Fienberg’s youth in Canada, the Holy Blossom temple quickly confirmed its link with the mourning synagogue in Pittsburgh. “I walk past her every day,” Rabbi Yael Splansky wrote on Facebook on Sunday, referring to Ms. Fienberg’s photo. They’d had a service there that morning, which she noted had been full. “The faces of these good people strengthened my faith in the future,” she wrote. Children and parents gathered for prayer. "Balm for an aching heart.”