'Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, We're in This Together': Brokenhearted, Pittsburgh Jews Find Comfort in Unity

'My generation didn't fully understand, until today, the murderous nature of anti-Semitism,' Squirrel Hill resident says after 11 killed in synagogue massacre

A memorial outside of the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018.
AFP

PITTSBURGH – On Sunday morning, in the hours after the Pittsburgh police department released the names of the 11 people who were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue; it was hard to find a person in the local Jewish community who did not have some kind of connection to at least one of the victims. In conversation after conversation with members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, people told Haaretz about friends, co-workers or family members who were somehow related to the tragedy.

Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who leads the nearby Reform synagogue Temple Sinai, told Haaretz that many members of his congregation are grieving.

“This has brought together the entire community, across all denominational lines,” he explained. Gibson himself said he knows personally the families of a number of the victims. He was planning to reach out to everyone, but is currently looking after the members of his congregation, who are struggling with the trauma inflicted on the entire community.

>> Pittsburgh Jewish community mourns victims in mass synagogue shooting: 'Hate isn’t going to win'■ From lynchings to mass shootings: The history of deadly attacks on Jews in America

His synagogue opened its doors to the community on Sunday morning, out of a decision not to let the murder disrupt the community life. Still, it was not a usual morning. As the first congregants and staff members arrived to the synagogue, they noticed a package that was left outside. In normal times, Gibson said, they might have just ignored it. But the day after a mass shooting at a nearby synagogue is not “normal times.” Police was called to the scene, and the street next to the synagogue was temporarily blocked.

A memorial down the road from the Tree of Life synagogue, October 28, 2018.
AFP

“Eventually it turned out to be nothing,” Gibson said. “But we can’t take any chances right now. Can’t take any risks.” Gibson will join rabbis from the entire community for a vigil on Sunday evening, which he says will be a show of unity: “Whether you are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Chabad, we are all in this together right now.”

Jeremy Pappas, who runs the regional office of the Anti Defamation League, told Haaretz that “this is community where truly, everyone knows everyone. I’ve personally been to Tree of Life many times, and so has my wife. I can see in my mind exactly where this horror happened. When you can picture the spot where a shooting took place, it shakes you to the core. And when you know people in the community who were personally affected, their families were affected, it’s beyond words.”

Pappas said he was specifically troubled to learn that one of the victims was 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who was described in some news reports as a Holocaust survivor. “We’re speaking of a woman who was old enough to live through the most terrible years in Jewish history, only to be killed for being a Jew, here in America.”

A local resident of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, who identified only by the first name Jess, shared a similar sentiment: “It’s so sad to think that this woman survived all the horrors of the 20th century, and then was murdered in a synagogue, in the United States, in 2018. My generation didn’t fully understand, until today, the murderous nature of anti-Semitism. But people her age saw it, and thought it was behind them, a thing of the past.”

People stand in front of a memorial outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue, October 28, 2018.
AFP

The local community leadership has been holding discussions since Sunday morning on how to address all the challenges of the coming days – from funeral arrangements to providing care for the bereaved families and those who were injured in the attack. One dilemma under discussion is security – how much of it should Jewish institutions have, in light of Saturday’s massacre.

Rabbi Gibson said that he agreed with what Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto told Haaretz on Saturday night: It was not a desirable objective to have every synagogue in America hire armed security. At the same time, he said, it was impossible to ignore the need for some kind of protection at this moment. Pappas, who works with law enforcement officials to track violent extremism, said that “this is a very important discussion, but right now we need to focus on Pittsburgh. There will be time to discuss this issue.”

At the moment, local police and law enforcement agencies are spread out across the region, specifically near Jewish institutions. This has provided a sense of security to members of the local community. But the leadership of the community is aware that within a week or two, the police will likely go back to regular deployment, and the local institutions will be left with the dilemma of how much security they should have.

One official at a local Jewish organization, who asked not to be named in order to freely discuss internal deliberations, said that this is a difficult dilemma for many in the community. “Jewish Americans like to think that their country is different from European countries, where every synagogue needs armed security,” the official said. “The idea that now every synagogue or JCC in America will need its own security could undermine everything that we have thought for years about ourselves and our country.”

Police tape is viewed around the area outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018.
AFP