Pittsburgh, One Year Later

A year since the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue that killed eleven congregants – the deadliest attack ever on the U.S. Jewish community

Bentley Addison
Sara Hirschhorn
Jacob Bacharach
Karol Markowicz

A Year After Pittsburgh Shooting, How Safe Do You Feel as a Jew in America?

A Year After Pittsburgh Shooting, How Safe Do You Feel as a Jew in America?

Credit: E. Brady Robinson

Bentley Addison

A student of Sociology, Political Science and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University

I’ve been noticing something recently. Each Shabbat when I go to religious services, I unconsciously choose a seat where I have full view of the door. I find my eyes drifting from the siddur in my hands to the fragility of the wooden door frame in front of me.

The room that was once so special to me, that I long to pray in each week, has turned into a room in which I cannot stop daydreaming of my own death by white supremacy.

I used to enjoy closing my eyes, hearing singing voices cascading over mine, feeling united with the others in the room. Now, closing my eyes is just a guarantee that I’ll be a moment too late when it comes time to flee or fight for my life.

Pittsburgh showed me that our houses of worship are by no means impermeable to the violent far right or to violence.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the very conspiracy theory that the Tree of Life assailant used to justify his murders has been furthered by the sitting president of the United States. Multiple times, Trump has invoked the imagery of a conspiracy of immigrant caravans paid to attempt infiltration of the American border to radically transform the U.S. The man who murdered 11 of my siblings in Pittsburgh made this dogwhistle explicit, targeting Jews in this community in large part because of HIAS’s relentless advocacy and work on behalf of largely Muslim refugees in this country.

The wide-ranging nature of these conspiracy theories and hatreds also scares me. It may sound strange, but we can’t make the Tree of Life massacre just about anti-Semitism, because that makes massacres like this much harder to fight. Inherent to the shooter’s logic and to the logic of white supremacists like him is a virulent hatred for Muslims and people of color.

Mosques and Black churches are often targets of the same style of massacre, and we’ll all continue to be unsafe if we don’t commit to understanding the hatred that confronts all of us and eradicating it- together.

I’ve been noticing something else as well. Each time I visit a new synagogue, especially during High Holidays, police cars line the parking lot, and an officer or two waits inside the shul’s foyer. For many Jews, this is unremarkable; the understanding is that police keep synagogues safe.

But for myself and many other Black people walking through the foyer of the synagogue, the first thought isn’t of newfound security. It’s of an endless list of people turned to hashtags in mere minutes, endless stories of miscarriages of justice, endless stories of our siblings slain by police, and the knowledge that we could be next.

Pittsburgh didn’t actually change much. White supremacy wasn’t born that day, and the physical safety of Jews, by and large, wasn’t fundamentally shifted on October 27, 2018. What changed was our awareness of the problem that white supremacy poses to our safety, and our understanding that something must be done about it.

And strangely enough, this is what gives me some semblance of hope. Pittsburgh was a watershed in Jews’ understanding that we’ll only defeat white supremacy by allying with other groups endangered by it. If this sentiment can grow and expand, we will, one day, be safe.

We can’t make the Tree of Life massacre just about anti-Semitism
Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Sara Hirschhorn

A Visiting Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University

I don’t need to see the statistics to know that I no longer feel safe as a Jew in the United States.

America is no longer that "Mother of Exiles," as Emma Lazarus once wrote, for the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" on her fair shores. The Goldineh Medinah now longer gleams; after Pittsburgh the mind’s eye is only the glint of the gun.

I waved to the police officer stationed outside my parents’ synagogue in western Massachusetts on Rosh Hashanah, knowing that their rabbi has trained for an active-shooter scenario (reportedly even keeping a fire-arm on the pulpit in the case of emergency) and that other regular members are "packing heat" on the High Holy Days. At tashlikh, the placid local pond of my youth was transformed into a police-cordoned zone as we cast away our sins.

Returning to Chicago for Yom Kippur, I could not help but think whether a Molotov cocktail might come crashing through the stained-glass of the sanctuary after an attack this spring whose perpetrator remains at large. And who hadn’t wondered what horrible news they might hear after Neilah? (Our worst nightmares were confirmed in Halle.)

Back in academia-land, I am regularly assaulted by left-wing anti-Semitism passed off as principled anti-Zionism, if also concerned about the troubling rise of white supremacy on college campuses and far beyond.

Yet more than my own personal sense of security, I feel shaken to the core by the ostrich-like reaction of some segments of liberal American Jewry to this moment of crisis. I am deeply frustrated by a narrative about the murder of Jews qua Jews as being about everything else other than their Jewishness, fervently gesturing to "universalist" issues like Trump, white supremacy, refugee policy, gun control, and mental health. (Not to mention the real solipsists who equate Israel with white supremacy, as if Jews aren’t dying at the hands of the real white supremacists.)

This denial of Jewish particularism, of Jews as targets because they are Jews and not as some by-product of bigger American or global concern, is deadly.

I understand that U.S. Jews don’t want to abandon our myth of America - but how many more Pittsburghs or Poways, scrawled swastikas or attempted arsons, or ultra-Orthodox Jews being beaten with some regularity on the streets of Brooklyn, will it take before we are willing to acknowledge (as Bari Weiss poignant wrote in her new book) that the pendulum may be swinging back - even to the European realities our ancestors may have fled?

This is the true terror of anti-Semitism: that this scourge has not and seemingly cannot be banished from the face of the earth 75 years after Auschwitz, it takes multiple guises across the globe, and it doesn’t discriminate between the "Good Jews" and the "Bad Jews" in death and destruction. That’s a deeply painful thought for American Jews - but dying of the false hope that "America is different" is painful too.

We U.S. Jews still don't want to abandon our myth of America
Credit: Jared Kohler

Jacob Bacharach

A writer based in Pittsburgh

Well, I can’t tell you how I feel as a Jew in America a year after Pittsburgh, because for those of us who live here, Pittsburgh is not an event, a tragedy, a metonym for another devastating eruption of political violence in America, a shorthand for the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States. Pittsburgh is a place.

It didn’t end when the shooting stopped, or when the culprit was arrested. It will not end when he is convicted. It will not become mere history if and when he is convicted or—over the objections of many of those he attacked—put to death. The city will still be here. Squirrel Hill will still be here. The Jews will still be here.

Do I feel less safe? Personally? I’ll be honest: not really.

Did I notice, over the past year, that I had to be buzzed into the temple when I joined my mother for Friday night services? Yes. Did I feel the presence of security guards and police officers guarding the sanctuaries on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? How could I not?

But did I find myself glancing over my shoulder when the doors opened at the back of the sanctuary, startling out of my seat when someone dropped something onto the floor? No. This probably reflects less on the fact that I am a Jew than on the fact that I am an American, and to be an American these days is to be necessarily inured to the fear of dying in some public place when someone bursts in with a gun.

It does feel like a more dangerous time to be a Jew—and especially to be a leftist Jew, a Jew who believes in the rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees—than it has ever been in my lifetime.

Politicians and political movements in Europe and America have deliberately revived the old calumnies about Jewish cosmopolitans and about Jewish loyalties. Our own Jewish communities are deeply divided, as some of our most prominent commentators seek to draw a dangerously false equivalency between left-wing anti-Zionism and advocacy for Palestinian rights, and the genocidal rhetoric of the political right, which is locked in a vile eugenic fantasy that imagines Jews and immigrants in a conspiracy to undermine a mythical white race.

So maybe it is fair to say that I am not afraid to be a Jew in Pittsburgh, but I am a little nervous about being a Jew in the world these days.

Despite this, I went to services more often this past year than I have in my entire adult life. I found myself, more often than before, making a point to identify as a Jew in every public forum. And when I got married this summer, it was perhaps a more Jewish affair than it otherwise would have been.

For me, for my neighbors, there is no after Pittsburgh. There is only, to echo the prayer, next year in Pittsburgh.

It does feel like a more dangerous time to be a Jew—and especially to be a leftist Jew, than ever before in my lifetime
Credit: Benjamin Hancock

Karol Markowicz

A columnist at the New York Post

It’s easy to hate white supremacists. They’re vile. They’re stupid. Their ugliness is open and outward. Reacting to them is collective. There’s no hand-wringing. There’s no call to hear them out. If we debate anything about them, it’s in the margins. "Should we out them to their employers so they’re fired?" "Should they be kicked off social media?"

"Jews will not replace us," they chant with their pathetic tiki torches in hand. Their Jew-hatred is so blunt and obvious. It’s the simplest to stand against. We know the precautions we need to institute to protect ourselves from an armed shooter.

Much harder to protect ourselves from is the other kind. The kind that hits Abraham Gopin, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the face with a brick. The kind that kicks a stroller with two children in it. The kind that manifests every few days on the streets of Brooklyn to the relative silence of all the people who would bravely stand against white supremacists.

One kind of anti-Semitism in America has been deadlier than the other in recent years, that’s true. But we ignore the other, unpatterned, no-manifesto, diffuse kind at the peril of those who live with it daily. "At least you didn’t die" isn’t much consolation for the man punched in the back of the head while on his way to work.

It’s not left or right. The spectrum is meaningless when it comes to hating Jews - and we should discard it. Our urge to place it neatly in a political box is backfiring. The pretense that anti-Semitism in America began with Donald Trump conveniently leaves out all the Jew hatred that is unrelated to the current administration. That a constant level of violence that doesn’t reach massacre level is somehow tolerable. Those anti-Semites are worse than these anti-Semites ends up excusing anti-Semitism.

A year after Pittsburgh, my synagogue in Brooklyn still has high security. Of course, years before Pittsburgh, my synagogue on the Upper West Side had that level of security all the same. If it’s just Trump, if it’s just now, we can survive it. If it’s larger than him or this moment, and it certainly is, we’ll have to face larger truths about our place in American society.

Jews are safer in America than we’ve been in so many other places and time periods. But "safer" is not the same as "safe." To be American means to be free, but at the same time to live with the idea that that freedom always comes at a price. American Jews have to internalize that for our collective safety. We can live here, worship here, be ourselves here but we cannot assume that means we won’t have to defend ourselves here.

Jews should be grateful for the official protection, for the police officers at our synagogue doors. But it’s harder to protect the Jews being attacked on the streets of Crown Heights or Williamsburg - so they have to defend themselves. Yes, Jews should carry guns to services, yes, Jews should be ready to fight back in the streets. The lesson of Pittsburgh can’t just be unity. It has to be security and self-defense, too.

Jews should carry guns to services. Jews should be ready to fight back in the streets

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