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Jewish community of Eastern Suburbs respond to Tree of Life mass shooting

November 24, 2018

While there is a hole in the collective heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, the region’s religious leaders are devoting the coming weeks and months to helping all those affected to begin to heal.

“The Jewish heart has been pierced, and you can’t ignore what’s happened because everyone knows and everyone is feeling it,” said Rabbi Yaier Lehrer of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Indiana Township.

On Oct. 27, Robert Bowers, 46, allegedly opened fire on worshipers at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, killing 11 and injuring six. Bowers has since been indicted by a federal grand jury on 44 counts that include 11 murders and hate crimes. .

Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David in Monroeville said she knew one of the victims and one of the six injured. She declined to name them because she said, “we’re still in shock mode.”

“As mourning develops, the question is how to be present. Right now, it’s as simple as being available,” Symons said, adding she hasn’t had much time to grieve for those she knew. “I am finding that I am comforted when I can offer support to others.”

Cantor Henry Shapiro of Parkway Jewish Center in Penn Hills said he knew two of the victims - Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried.

“Every synagogue in the area is going to be focused on this,” he said.

Shapiro planned to hold a special “Solidarity Shabbat” on the first Saturday after the attack. The direction came from Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America in New York City. The service was to be held in synagogues across the region.

Moving forward, Jewish leaders are talking about ways to improve safety at their synagogues while also supporting those still in mourning.

‘Not a new reality’

Shapiro said Pittsburgh was the last place he expected this sort of tragedy to happen. But the threat against Jews, he said, is not new.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that tracks anti-Semitism in the United States, anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. increased 57 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year. Those incidents included bomb threats, assaults, vandalism and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses.

“This can happen anywhere now. Unfortunately, it’s not a new reality,” Shapiro said, adding he and his synagogue leaders are reviewing safety procedures.

Symons said the incident in Squirrel Hill has led to conversation surrounding safety at Temple David.

“There’s a balance between opening doors and being welcoming and being safe,” Symons said.

She said the synagogue employs security on high holidays, but now she and Temple David leaders are looking to enhance the building’s security system, which includes locked doors during the week and a camera at the front door with a buzz-in system.

Symons did not specify what security measures the synagogue might take, but said she would be against having armed security present.

Rabbi Nathan Puro of Soresh David Messianic Congregation in Monroeville said he is open to the idea of having an armed and trained congregant in the building during services. He also said he is looking into providing active shooter drills for his congregants.

“We want to be welcoming but also cautious. That’s what we’re working on,” Puro said. “We’ve never been through active shooter drills -- at least not yet. That’s what we’ve come to in the country.”

Lehrer, at Adat Shalom Synagogue, said it is important to assure his congregation’s children they are safe at worship. He and other leaders will meet to discuss upgraded safety at the site. The synagogue currently uses cameras and a secure entry, he said.

There has been a township police officer assigned since Saturday to guard the building’s entrance, a move Lehrer finds comforting.

“I think kids view police as figures of authority who are there to protect us,” he said. “I think they accept their presence easily, and so do I.”

Overwhelming support

Rabbi Lehrer said while it’s important to acknowledge the pain everyone is feeling, it’s also important to recognize how much support the Jewish community has received since the tragedy.

“I think every congregation in the area has reached out to us,” he said.

The Rev. Scott Shaffer, pastor at Faith United Methodist in Fox Chapel, scheduled a special prayer service on Oct. 28 that included a prolonged period of guided prayer, special readings and reflections in response to the weekend shooting. There also was a separate collection to support the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh in their assistance to families affected by the crime.

In Monroeville one day after the shooting, Temple David hosted an interfaith vigil where hundreds from the community gathered to pray and sing. Several religious leaders of various faiths took turns addressing the grieving crowd. The choirs of Temple David and St. Maurice Church in Forest Hills joined together to lead those in attendance through traditional Jewish liturgy.

Thousands gathered at the Soldiers and Saints Memorial in Oakland on the Sunday following the shooting. Countless other vigils popped up throughout the Pittsburgh region in the days following.

By Oct. 30, more than $1 million had been raised for the victims and their families through various fundraising efforts.

Symons said it has been uplifting seeing the amount of support she and other Jewish leaders have received.

“One of the greatest questions I’ve gotten from the community has been, ‘how can we help?’” she said. “To me, that makes a statement -- this tragedy has happened to all of us. Not just the Jewish community, all of us.”

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