'Our hearts are broken,' says Pittsburgh Jewish Federation

Refugee aid group mentioned by Pittsburgh shooter urges national healing

‘This loss is our loss,’ says HIAS after at least 11 killed at Tree of Life synagogue

People embrace along the street in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire during services at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, October 27, 2018. (AP/Keith Srakocic)
People embrace along the street in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire during services at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, October 27, 2018. (AP/Keith Srakocic)

The refugee aid organization referenced by the shooter who killed at least 11 people in a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue said it was praying for national healing in the wake of the anti-Semitic attack.

“There are no words to express how devastated we are by the events in Pittsburgh this morning. This loss is our loss, and our thoughts are with Tree of Life Congregation, our local partner Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh and all those affected by this senseless act of violence. As we try to process this horrifying tragedy, we pray that the American Jewish community and the country can find healing,” HIAS said in a statement Saturday.

The shooter, identified by law enforcement as Robert Bowers, had mentioned HIAS in a social media post hours before entering the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He is said to have yelled “All Jews must die” as he entered the Conservative synagogue and began firing during a brit milah (circumcision) ceremony.

Bowers is said to have written anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant conspiracies on Gab, an alt-right social network similar to Twitter. His last reported message, hours before the shooting Saturday, read: “HIAS likes to bring invaders to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

HIAS, formerly called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is an American-Jewish nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid to refugees and immigrants.

Earlier this month, Bowers had posted about HIAS’s sponsoring of a National Refugee Shabbat, meant to put a spotlight on the worldwide refugee crisis.

“Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the the list of friends you have provided,” he wrote, sharing a link to a HIAS posting about the event.

Founded in the 1880s, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was a shelter and resource for newly arrived Jewish immigrants. During and after World War I and the Holocaust, it worked to resettle waves of Jewish refugees. And it took a leading role in the movement to free and resettle Soviet Jewry.

As the waves of Jewish immigration slowed to a trickle in the 2000s, HIAS began resettling non-Jewish refugees. Now it is one of nine agencies tasked with resettling refugees in the United States.

Under US President Donald Trump, it has also taken on an activist role in pushing against the administration’s hard-line stance against immigration.

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, welcomes hundreds to the Jewish Rally for Refugees in Battery Park, New York, on February 12, 2017. (Courtesy HIAS)

Other Jewish leaders described the attack as “horrific,” “heinous” and “devastating.”

“Our hearts are broken,” the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh posted on Facebook, saying it was making an exception and using social media on Shabbat.

The federation’s president, Jeff Finkelstein, in an interview on CNN praised the quick reaction of the police and local government and said of the shooting, “This is now real. This is my worst nightmare.”

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said in a statement: “Our thoughts, prayers and actions are with the entire Pittsburgh Jewish community at the events of today. The peace of Shabbat was shattered and lives tragically lost. All of us stand with our brothers and sisters there.”

Silverman said the Secure Community Network is already working with the synagogue alongside the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The security arm for national Jewish groups is affiliated with JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray from a prayerbook a block away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, tweeted: “The news from #Pittsburgh is horrible, just horrible. An attack on a synagogue kills at least 8 people and wounds others. No words are adequate. A demented, bigoted mind that would destroy lives in a house of worship should leave us all speechless, united and angry as hell.”

The Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh in a post on Facebook said it is in contact with staff, university officials and law enforcement to ensure the safety of students. The center said it was planning to open on Shabbat in order to support students and community members “when it is safe to do so.”

Law enforcement run with a person on a stretcher at the scene where multiple people were shot, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Parents responded with comments thanking the center for being available to help their children. One wrote: “So glad that you are there to support our children when we, as parents, are far away and cannot hug them and be with them.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said the attack was not just on the Jewish community but on America as a whole.

“We must condemn this attack at the highest levels and do everything in our power to stop such atrocities from happening again,” Lauder said in a statement.

B’nai B’rith International called it “a devastating day for Jews in this country and around the world.”

“But more than that, it’s another devastating day for tolerance and acceptance,” Charles Kaufman and Daniel Mariaschin, its president and CEO, respectively, said in a statement. “We are living in an unparalleled toxic atmosphere of hate that seems endless. While we welcome politicians’ thoughts and prayers when murderous rages of hate occur, that must be followed by action on many levels. Tolerance and mutual respect, plus sensible gun control – especially for automatic weapons – are needed now.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.,who was the target of a mail bombing campaign in recent days, said in a tweet: “Our houses of worship will never truly be safe until those in power challenge anti-Semitism and the rampant proliferation of guns. My heart goes out to Pittsburgh, its Jewish community, law enforcers and all those impacted by this tragedy on a holy day of worship.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, called the shooting a “savage hate crime and an act of terror.”

“This moment calls for responsible leadership. We must all join together in condemning the rising tide of white nationalism, racism and hatred directed at Jewish people and other vulnerable minorities in our country,” it said in a statement. “And we must call for an end to the extreme rhetoric, laced with bigotry and racism, that is dominating our national discourse and breeding violence.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s national chairman, Norm Coleman, said in a statement: “The level of hate in this country is out of control. Today we mourn the dead and stand in awe of the men and women who ran toward the gun fire to help the victims and stop the perpetrator. In the days ahead, we all must come together to combat this epidemic of hate. From the left, the right, and all other corners of our political spectrum, we must come together to find a better path forward.”

The scene of a mass hooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said it was clear that congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue were targeted because they were Jews. She said her organization “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the elevated anti-Semitic, hateful, and divisive rhetoric in our country that has emboldened anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and those who sympathize with these movements.”

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the attack “reminds us of the slaughter of nine African American worshipers at Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel Church in 2015, the killings of six Sikh worshipers at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2014, and, of course, the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that left four young African American girls dead. The violence in Pittsburgh follows on the heels of a string of attempted pipe bombings by a white supremacist who targeted frequent critics of President Trump. Our hearts go out to the families of the shootings.”

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