Ask The Rabbis | How Has Pittsburgh Changed Jewish Life for Your Community?
Our reaction to the events in Pittsburgh began with mourning for the victims. From mourning we moved to the legitimate fear that comes from living in a nation where easily procured weapons of mass death terrorize people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people and—as always—Jews.
Fear took us to anger. We are infuriated by our leader’s tacit encouragement of the hatred growing in our country. We are outraged at his remarks about how “it would have had a better outcome” had the victims been armed. As secular Jews, we are incensed when we are told that it was not anti-Semitism that motivated the assailant but “anti-religiosity.”
How were we changed? Sadness, fear and anger are normal emotions. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in them, so we gave voice to one more reaction: gratitude. Our allies who showed up to support us and those who raised their voices in support of Jews everywhere reminded us that we are all in this together. With a real unity of purpose, we know that it is possible to build a world where we will no longer mourn senseless barbarity, where fear and anger will be replaced by trust and joy.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation
for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI
Pittsburgh has awakened us from the illusion that the boogeyman’s long gone. Sadly, we continue to step cautiously around the tragic history of the deeply embedded myth that has libeled us for centuries, and around its persistence in our own times, conveniently cloaked in anti-Israel tirades, fed by world media, social media and campus culture. Anti-Semitism continues to flourish as the transglobal demonization of Jews that it always has been. Jews do not get that we remain despised, denigrated, blamed for societal ills, cast off every bandwagon, maligned in churches, mosques, elevators and barrooms and probably on a tennis court or two. Recently, my beloved and I stopped in a local tavern for a drink. It didn’t take more than five minutes before the word “Jew” graced the conversation at the other end of the bar: “Yeah, he’s like a Jew, always counting his money…” Of course, they couldn’t tell that we were Jews. First, the barroom was dark. Second, Jews are not known to frequent bars. Third, Jews are demonic, so not always visible. Fourth, we tipped generously.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
The last time this many Jews were gathered together in Akron, people said, was when Judith Resnik died in the Challenger in 1986. While it is important to gather when tragedy hits, tragedy cannot be the only impetus for renewing our commitment to our values and community. The event in Pittsburgh was very close to home. We are geographically close, and several members of our community are related to those who were killed in the shooting.
Like many congregations around the country, we have increased our security measures and reevaluated our safety. Last year, anti-Semitic comments were written on a Facebook event page we posted. Although some wanted us to cancel the program, that wasn’t our answer. Of course, we informed our local police, but more of us also believe that hateful acts or threats cannot shut us down. If we cower or hide in the face of our haters, then the hate has more space to grow.
As Sartre famously wrote: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” Let our absence not become the invention of a twisted mind. Instead, we must continue to provide meaningful programs, services and messages that promote tolerance, friendship and love.
Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein
Beth El Congregation
Though devastated, are we really surprised? With weaponized white supremacism rekindling ancient anti-Semitic hatreds, we took safety for granted for too long. Amid elevated fear, we’re asking:
How do we define “security,” which can never be total or perfect? How much should we arm our campuses, fortress our synagogues, change our ways? Liberty and security are adjacent and parallel (actually, as exits off Baltimore’s beltway). We must ever recalibrate safety against openness and freedom. For instance, after these anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic murders, we’re defiantly recommitting to HIAS, the refugee aid organization that allegedly inspired the gunman’s rage.
And “security” for whom? Armed guards in shuls, schools and elsewhere are dubiously effective and potentially counterproductive. Because of real and insidious implicit bias, guns on campus (even in trained hired hands) measurably heighten risk for community members—especially Jews of color, the differently abled, and gender-queer Jews.
Finally, security is ultimately societal, so how will we expand our solidarity with Muslim, black Christian and other fellow minority communities? Newly emboldened white nationalism targets us together. Tree of Life could have been Charleston’s Bethel Church or any American mosque, and vice versa. Motivated by the memory of 11 worshippers, let’s now mobilize with all our cousins, and all people of conscience and faith.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Our Fresno community has palpably changed. More than 500 people gathered in our sanctuary to pray, console one another and unite in renewed commitment to shared understanding and love. We built on strong interfaith relationships to come together in our common moment of pain. A black Baptist minister and a Muslim leader each held the Torah as the rabbi chanted, “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart…” The district police captain stood close by, with his officers on guard outside. The gathering deepened long-standing relationships within the interfaith community, with law enforcement personnel and within the congregation.
A new congregational security committee has been established and is having difficult conversations about guards, gates and security cameras. The conversations are pressing and gut-wrenching because the synagogue itself was vandalized just a few hours after the interfaith gathering. Seeing our own spaces targeted for hate brought the fears of Pittsburgh that much closer to home. Yet we once again intensified and renewed strong bonds that were visible just hours before.
I wonder who hasn’t been changed by Pittsburgh. I pray that these changes lead us away from fear and hate and move us toward ever-increasing peace and love.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
It would be easy to answer this question by describing the new plan created by our security committee. I could write about the off-duty police officer who is in the building whenever there is a program or service. Or maybe I should describe how the leadership of my congregation is paying for the new security efforts. Although all of these changes have come about since the shooting in Pittsburgh, I prefer to emphasize something different.
Shabbat afternoon is usually a quiet time at my home. But on Saturday, October 26, several neighbors knocked on my door. These non-Jewish neighbors had heard about the shooting. One brought flowers, another wrote a beautiful note, and another simply wanted to see how I was doing. My neighbors had no idea whether I had a personal connection to that congregation, but they wanted to extend love, condolences and support. In the weeks that followed, I was struck by how the non-Jewish community reacted to the shooting. I felt reassured to hear Christian and Muslim leaders express their outrage. And I was grateful to the many non-Jews who attended the vigil our community organized the day after the shooting and/or the Shabbat service the following week. Security measures matter, but I would rather focus on the good will that has surfaced since the shooting.
Rabbi Amy W. Katz
Temple Beth El
Somewhat to my surprise, the Pittsburgh shul massacre has not much impacted Jewish life in our community. Security procedures were reviewed in all the synagogues and other institutions and somewhat stepped up.
People were shocked, and they genuinely grieved for the dead. There was some political polarization around whether to blame President Donald Trump for the inflammatory social communication environment. Still, most people feel that the shooter was a lone wolf and that America is not Europe—that this is the land where Jews are accepted and anti-Semites marginalized. Apparently, it would take several more incidents like the one in Pittsburgh (God forbid) to shake this community’s conclusion.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
There’s a verse in Haazinu, “Remember the days of history.” The Orthodox community understands memory is a mitzvah, including memories of our past vulnerability, so we’re a bit more cynical about the future and less disinclined to jump on the security bandwagon early. Anecdotally, I know of shuls on the right and the left that quietly, more than a decade ago, started to have armed people sitting in the pews. Unobtrusively—the people next to them did not realize they were armed and trained. The bigger places have had security at the doors as well, but this is different—congregants, rabbis and rebbetzins who pack 45s.
There are Shabbat issues, but if there’s an eruv, a lot of people in very halachically significant circles are comfortable with people “wearing” a gun on their belt. Gun ownership in these places is not seen as part of “gun culture” but as preparedness. In that sense, Pittsburgh was a very tragic and disappointing step in the wrong direction, but not an entirely unexpected one.
From what I read about the resistance in other denominations to having our shuls become armed fortresses, I think there’s less resistance in the Orthodox community. I think the Orthodox have done a better job of linking young people in successive generations to the horror of the Holocaust in particular and the bloodiness of Jewish history in general. When we travel through Europe, we see that the shuls there are already armed fortresses—and other places of worship too, not just Jewish—so we are disappointed but not psychologically unprepared for it. It’s part of the price of galut.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
On Tuesday, October 30, l was on a bus from Maryland with fellow congregants who dropped everything and took a bus to attend the funerals of David and Cecil Rosenthal in Pittsburgh, to show solidarity and offer comfort. The following Shabbat saw a packed shul with lectures, prayers and classes dedicated to the memory of the innocent victims. The most powerful moment for me during this emotional week came as we were waiting for the hearses, chanting, “Because of my brothers and friends.” But with the outpouring of love and solidarity, I contemplated some difficult thoughts.
First, the obsession with social media. Yes, there were those who wanted to share the experience with others, but others who treated it as just another event to share. We have to be able to put our phones aside and focus on reality. Second: Some people, including rabbis, seemed to be there to promote their agenda or make a name for themselves, which in my eyes is a grave transgression.
Finally, I wondered: Where was the solidarity when Israel endured incessant terrorist attacks? I heard from too many people the phrase “It could have been me,” and I think that we should be able to spring to action even when we think that this could never happen to me. Because we do not want “it” to happen to anyone.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
The worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history must shake us all to our core and cause some real reflection. Imagine! While Holocaust survivors still live among us, a murderer unleashes an evil fusillade against people he never knew except for one detail: They were Jews. (In previous similar attacks, perpetrators ended up killing non-Jewish employees in a Jewish location.)
Some can get caught up in minutiae, such as how observant those killed were or weren’t, or whether they were really affiliated or just attending an event with other Jews. All but irrelevant. What really matters is that there was a unifying detail that callously brought a sudden end to their lives. They were Jews. And this needs to jar every member of our community.
To be sure, we have, and always have had, some valid differences. But sometimes we are reminded just how divided or insensitive one can become over them. No one needs to yield the fundamental beliefs of Yiddishkeit to recognize that we need—now more than ever—better efforts to bring more Jews together in joyous ways, not just to mark disasters that, in bitter sadness, bring our unified destiny into sharper relief.
So please take a moment and reflect deeply. And do one mitzvah more or better in honor of the kedoshim, holy ones, who perished that day. Am Yisrael Chai!
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President,
American Friends of Lubavitch