'Everyone Is Surprised When Something Hits Close to Home': Rabbi of Neighboring Pittsburgh Synagogue Recounts Trauma

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, leader of the Reform synagogue Rodef Shalom that is close to the Tree of Life synagogue that came under attack Sunday, tells Haaretz that 'we all knew rhetoric of hate could lead to this' and that Trump's comments were 'tone deaf'

Women praying from a prayerbook a block away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 27, 2018.
AFP

WASHINGTON - Rabbi Aaron Bisno, who leads the Reform synagogue “Rodef Shalom” in Pittsburgh, told Haaretz that he wasn’t surprised by the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which claimed the lives of ten people on Saturday.

“This now part of American society,” he said. “We have a culture that is filled with guns and with messages of hate, and this is what it looks like.” 

Bisno’s congregation is located about a mile from the Tree of Life synagogue. Tree of Life is affiliated with the Conservative denomination, while Rodef Shalom is one of America’s oldest Reform synagogues. The two congregations are in the same neighborhood, and Bisno said there are close friendships between members of the two communities.

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 “This is an area with a large Jewish population,” he explained. “All of us know people who were there. We are all worried sick right now.”

Pittsburgh city firefighters cordon off an area a block away from the Tree of Life synagogue where a man opened fire on October 27, 2018, killing eight people.
AFP

Bisno told Haaretz how the events of Saturday morning, local time, unfolded in his own congregation. “We were in the middle of Shabbat prayers when you could see people beginning to discuss something, and some people turning to their phones,” he said. “Some of our members tried to arrive for services but couldn’t get there because the roads in the neighborhood were all blocked. And after a while, we all realized what was going on, the news made it into the synagogue. We were put on lockdown and you could hear the police sirens coming from all over the area.”

At this point, he said, “we made an announcement to the crowd that this is what’s going on. People were shocked. We had to stop the service.” Bisno said that “I think everyone is surprised when something like this hits so close to home, literally. But at the same time, we are not surprised. We all knew the rhetoric of hate could lead to this kind of situation. There is a numb sense of shock, yes, but there is also a sense that when you have so much hate, this is what happens.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking to reporters about the shooting in Pittsburgh as he arrives at Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on October 27, 2018.
Andrew Harnik,AP

Bisno called U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments about a lack of security as the reason for the attack “tone deaf.” He said that “many congregations do have security, especially around the time of the High Holy Days. But the fundamental issue here is the cultural message that this kind of hatred, this kind of violence, is acceptable. And also that people’s access to guns is not something that we as a society should solve. Those are the main issues here.”