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'This was a reminder to the Jews: Don’t get too comfortable'

‘A turning point’: 3 years on, US rabbis reflect on Pittsburgh synagogue attack

On Oct. 27, 2018, a shooter entered Tree of Life, killing 11 in the deadliest antisemitic event in American history. Now clergy open up about that morning and life in its aftermath

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, during Shabbat morning services, a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s quiet Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Eleven people were killed in the attack, recorded as the deadliest that the American Jewish community has ever known.

Within hours, the world’s eyes were on Squirrel Hill, home to a tight-knit community that some describe as a Jewish hub in the Steel City. Journalists, politicians and Israeli diplomats flocked into town and Jewish communities across the United States mourned the loss of the victims. The following Shabbat, sanctuaries across the country were full to capacity in solidarity.

The shooter, identified as white nationalist Robert Bowers, was arrested at the scene. Investigators found he had posted antisemitic comments on social media prior to the shooting, lashing out in particular at HIAS, a Jewish group helping refugees supported by the congregations housed at Tree of Life.

Many pointed the finger at former US president Donald Trump for fanning the flames of hate by not strongly condemning racist views among his supporters and others on the far right. Jewish groups in Pittsburgh even wrote an open letter to the president letting him know he was not welcome unless he “fully denounced white nationalism,” and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto refused to meet with Trump when he visited after the attack.

In the years following the Tree of Life shooting, antisemitic incidents continued to rise in the United States.

In 2019 alone, Jews were killed in attacks at the Chabad of Poway in California, a kosher supermarket in Jersey City and a rabbi’s Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York. The Anti-Defamation league recorded an average of six antisemitic incidents every day in the US in 2019, an all-time high.

A mother hugs her son in front of a memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2019. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

The year 2020 saw a slight decrease but remained the third-highest year for incidents against American Jews since ADL started tracking this data in 1979.

More recently, the conflict between Israel and Hamas this past May brought an increase in antisemitic incidents reported domestically, with 60 percent of Jewish Americans saying they witnessed behavior or comments they deemed antisemitic as a result of the violence in Israel.

Three years after the tragedy at Tree of Life, rabbis in Pittsburgh and across the US reflect, in their own words, on that day and its impact. We asked them to tell us what they remember from that day and how it has affected them and their congregations since.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno. (Danielle Ziri)

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, Rodef Shalom Congregation — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Reform
Congregation Rodef Shalom is off the same main road as Tree of Life. Bisno, too, was in the middle of Shabbat morning services when the shooting took place. Within minutes, his congregation was placed on lockdown.

“I understood that once we were locked down that it was the safest place we could be,” Bisno says. “I didn’t have a sense of fear simply because I minimize the amount of fear I probably face in general. I’m conscious that at any time someone could have walked through the doors [at our synagogue] on Fifth Avenue, but I don’t stay with those thoughts. I haven’t walked around with my buzzer or my emergency alert thing that they give me now to wear on the dais. I don’t do that. I don’t want to live like that. We have a panic button on the dais but I am not wired as if I’m in a perpetual state of alert. I can’t do that.”

“There is no question that it is a turning point,” he says. “You think before and after Pittsburgh in terms of a sense of safety in the United States. This was a reminder to the Jews: ‘Don’t get too comfortable.’ It forced us all to now be self-conscious all the time in a very different way, and maybe as a result we’re saving ourselves from all kinds of stuff. However, it is really more about how the community responded than what happened. It’s not a crime story so much as the story of a community’s resilience.”

Rabbi Matt Cohen, Congregation B’nai Israel — Galveston, Texas

Rabbi Matt Cohen. (Manny Chan)

Reform
Cohen leads a small congregation on Galveston Island, which served as a port of entry for some Jewish immigrants who came from Europe in the early 1900s. When Cohen first arrived at the congregation in 2012, the doors were open and there was almost no security in place.

“It’s kind of like 9/11: It was the most perfect, beautiful weather day,” says Cohen. “I was on my way to Torah study. I stopped at the beach, I reflected, I felt blessed to be there and shared it on Facebook live. I go to my Torah study and midway through my Torah study is when I got a text from someone telling me about [the attack]. It stopped me dead in my tracks. We did a healing service two days later and we had a lot of people from the interfaith community show up and hug us.”

“I called an emergency board meeting,” Cohen says. “We live in a community that is so open and no one would imagine anything like that happening here. The problem is that no one would have imagined it happening where it happened in Pittsburgh. Once you are in the building, we are still going to be the same open, loving, welcoming congregation. It’s who we are and [taking security measures] doesn’t change who we are. But when someone walks into our building they’ll have peace of mind. In a perfect world this would be tragic beyond tragic and something we carry forever. The problem is it happened, the news was there for days, and then the next thing happened and it becomes out of sight, out of mind.”

Rabbi Roly Matalon, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — New York, New York

Rabbi Roly Matalon. (Courtesy B’nei Jeshurun)

Independent
Matalon, originally from Argentina, leads an iconic nearly 200-year-old synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On the morning of October 27, 2018, he was made aware of the Tree of Life shooting on the pulpit.

“Someone came to let me know that there was a terrible shooting with several people dead in Pittsburgh in a synagogue, and asked if I wanted to share with the community, and the decision was not to alarm people,” says Matalon. “But of course we alerted a number of people to be very watchful and alert our security. After the attack, we had an outpouring of support from our neighboring faith communities in New York City. Muslims and Christians all came to BJ and packed our Shabbat services in the following weeks showing their solidarity and support.”

“Until that time, like many others, I subscribed to the view that antisemitism in America had declined so significantly that it had ceased from constituting a problem for Jews and Judaism in America,” Matalon says. “I do believe that the massacre in Pittsburgh was a wake-up call, a reason for serious reflection and reevaluation. After Pittsburgh, we strengthened our security — not just [with] a visible presence but also through our building’s infrastructure as well. We held multiple active shooter drills with our staff and members of the community. But creating a space in which all feel a sense of belonging and security is complex and challenging. This is an evolving process and conversation within our community that is far from finished.”

Rabbi Marisa James, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah — New York, New York

Rabbi Marisa James. (Courtesy of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah)

Reconstructionist/Independent
A member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, James is the director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an independent Manhattan synagogue welcoming LGBTQ worshipers. As part of her role, she leads a group of congregants who show weekly support for the Muslim community at the NYU Islamic Center with signs reading “Jews stand with Muslims.” The week before the shooting, they also held a Shabbat program in support of HIAS and refugees. She was on her way to synagogue when she learned of the Tree of Life shooting.

“It’s a very vivid memory for me,” says James. “We had a program we were running in the afternoon after services, so I was getting there relatively late. I was walking through Penn Station when I saw this pop up on my phone. I remember I was walking very quickly and all of a sudden I was walking very slowly, in tears and in shock. I was really glad that I was on my way to synagogue. To be with people after that was really important. On the Sunday afterward, the first dozen emails were all from our Muslim friends, all of these people reaching out to say, ‘You’ve been standing with us for so long, can we do the same for you? Because we want you to know that we care so deeply about your safety.’ It was deeply meaningful.”

“The truth is, as an LGBTQ congregation, we actually still get more hateful stuff about us being LGBTQ than us being Jewish, and so in a way we are in a unique position — where other synagogues perhaps before the Pittsburgh shooting had not thought so much about security, we’ve always been aware of this,” she says. “It certainly amplified it because it kind of increases the sense of the multitude of directions that hate can come from. A security guard or two can be one component of safety, but frankly, I think we also deeply understood that partnerships in the community, with our Muslim neighbors, with our immigrant neighbors, were important. We’re not in greater danger than they are. So instead of turning inwards with greater fear, we thought about how we turn outward with greater generosity and the understanding that the best way to ensure safety for everyone is to keep working on ensuring safety for everyone.”

Rabbi Yisroel Altein, Chabad of Squirrel Hill — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Rabbi Yisroel Altein. (Courtesy Chabad of Squirrel Hill)

Orthodox
Altein’s Chabad House in Squirrel Hill was among the first centers the organization established outside of Brooklyn in the early 1940s. He himself has lived in Squirrel Hill for some 18 years, and his family is originally from the neighborhood.

“The center of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh is Squirrel Hill, so when something happens here to the Jewish community, it immediately affects and involves everyone,” Altein says. “So in that sense, on October 27, that Shabbat morning, obviously there is one synagogue where it took place, but the immediate impact was felt in the community as a whole. We were in the middle of services at Chabad, which is literally a few blocks away [from Tree of Life], and one of our members, who was not in synagogue that day but had heard of the story, came running up to tell us what was going on to make sure that we go into lockdown. At that point we did not have a security guard, and obviously on Shabbat there were no phones, so we went into lockdown and we waited until we found out that things were under control and we could go out.”

“In the practical sense, I would say security is probably how we changed things,” he says. “We have to be careful and we certainly changed our operation system, being much more conscientious about our security, having a security guard and plans of reactions and what needs to be done. But it also changed the way we think of community, the way we think of how we are here to support each other, a certain sense of strength. I think that that helped bring out a certain sense of community that we can still feel as we go forward. It was a very moving part of the response — the palpable feeling of warmth between the people.”

Rabbi David Straus, Main Line Reform Temple — Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

Rabbi David Straus. (Yael Pachino)

Reform
Straus is the senior rabbi of a diverse congregation in a suburban community northwest of Philadelphia. As the shooting took place, he was at synagogue leading Torah studies and officiating a bar and bat mitzvah. He only learned about the attack as he got home that morning.

“What I remember most of all about that day and the 24 hours that followed is that my phone did not stop ringing from my non-Jewish colleagues,” says Straus. “Both locally and nationally, my non-Jewish colleagues called me to stand in solidarity, to express their concern, to ask what they could do and to insist that we know we are not alone. They didn’t ask, ‘Can we come to services next Friday night?’ They said, ‘David, we’re going to sit on the pulpit with you next Friday night. We’re not asking. We need to be there for you and for us.’”

“I don’t remember when exactly we locked our doors, whether it was before or after Pittsburgh, but there is an increased need for security,” Straus says. “The doors are all locked all the time and we have all sorts of other security measures. Whenever we can’t let people in one by one, we have to have a guard there. I think it’s actually reassuring to people to know that there is somebody there who’s protecting them, who is watching over them. That reality has changed, and it’s sad that that reality has changed.”

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, Malkhut — Queens, New York

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg. (Courtesy)

Independent
After serving on established pulpits across the country, in 2016 Goldenberg founded Malkhut, a diverse progressive Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens practicing ecstatic, musical, and contemplative prayer, mindfulness meditation through a Jewish lens, the study of Jewish sources and social justice work. Her community does not have a building of its own but rents space from churches for services.

“I was at my in-laws’ apartment, visiting them, hanging out. It was shocking, terrifying, mostly just deep sadness,” Goldenberg says. “All I had was my phone and I was trying to figure out how to organize the havdalah vigil gathering for that night. Trump being in office, I feel like that sense of safety that I definitely took for granted as an American Jew and as a rabbi already was shattered to some extent — but that day, it was blown apart. The next Friday night, we gathered in the middle of Jackson Heights and there was a circle around us of people from the Bangladeshi, Muslim community, Buddhist community, the Chinese community. They showed up for us. The next Shabbat morning, when I went in to lead services, I was feeling nauseous and unwell. A dear friend noticed and gave me a hug. I burst into tears. That’s when I noticed it was in my body — the terror and that sense of being a sitting duck, that they are going to come for me.”

“Subconsciously I always felt, ‘Well, I am safe because I’m in a church and no one knows I am here,'” says Goldenberg. “We never implemented any security protocols because they were not our buildings. But the only thing we did was that when we had large events [before the COVID-19 pandemic] we had undercover security, not someone at the door. Having uniformed security presence creates a sense of safety for white Jews. It does not create a sense of safety for Jews of color, and we did not want to create that kind of a barrier for people walking into that kind of event. We are a very diverse integrated community here. It was a very hard conversation to have and think about.”

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, The Shul of Bal Harbour — Surfside, Florida

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar. (Courtesy of The Shul)

Orthodox
Lipskar is the founder and leader of The Shul of Bal Harbour, a Chabad congregation in Miami’s Surfside neighborhood. Earlier this year, his congregation dealt with its own tragedy — the collapse of a condominium building in Surfside which killed 98 people, many of them members of the local Jewish community. On October 27, 2018, he was told of the shooting after Shabbat.

“I mean how can you feel when you hear that? It’s tragic. You feel hurt, you feel intruded upon, you feel somewhat threatened. And of course you feel very sorry, very sad. I’m sure everybody shared the same feeling,” says Lipskar.

“We had very strong security, maybe it was a little strengthened after that,” he says. “But our openness was not traded for a sense of fear or alarm in the community. We Jewish people are used to this kind of thing. That’s how unfortunately we’ve been treated throughout history. We operate with strength, resilience, courage and an attitude that we will overcome. Generally speaking, our community has become stronger, more connected, more committed, focused. There is a lot of vigilance going on, people are very aware. America has entered into a little bit of a difficult environment presently and we are more conscious of security and safety and so forth. Our objective is to do as much good as possible and of course to be aware of the fact that there are dangers and negative forces that always surround us.”

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