On Oct. 27, 2018, unimaginable horror descended on the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as an anti-Semite extinguished the lives of 11 innocent Jews and forever changed the lives of countless others.
It was just before 10 a.m. that Shabbat morning when the killer, armed with an assault rifle, stormed the synagogue at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues where worshipers had just begun morning prayers at three separate congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. He had posted anti-Semitic rants on social media just prior to driving from his home to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and reportedly yelled, “All Jews must die,” before murdering Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Mel Wax and Irving Younger.
As he fired his weapon, also seriously injuring congregants Andrea Wedner and Daniel Leger, the Pittsburgh Police received calls reporting an active shooter, and within one minute had dispatched officers to the scene.
Sirens rang through the streets of Squirrel Hill as worshipers at other local congregations began to receive the news that the Tree of Life building was under attack. The phones of Jewish Pittsburghers throughout the city buzzed urgently with texts and calls from friends and family all over the world, seeking to make sure their loved ones were safe.
Phones also buzzed in Jewish communities across the country, including the Greater Baltimore area. In this issue, to coincide with the year mark of the shooting, the JT conducted some person-on-the-street interviews and asked community leaders to reflect on the tragedy.
“It was an act of terror aimed at spurring fear and division. It was a stark and disturbing example of the impact of the increased levels of the poisonous and hateful rhetoric we have witnessed in recent years,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who was moved by an Oneg Shabbat interfaith vigil to memorialize the victims. The shooting also inspired Van Hollen to fight for security funds for religious organizations.
Security has been on the minds of many in the community since the attack. Stanley Drebin, owner of Goldberg’s New York Bagels, felt particularly worried. “We always fear since we are a very Jewish place where Jews congregate from all over the world and Baltimore,” he said. “Crazy people choose places like this to attack.”
Towson student Natasha Baum, 22, said that she noticed a heightened sense of security at the religious school where she works. Thoug she is comfortable with police officers, she said, she knows that seeing more officers around can make some people uncomfortable.
“If it is a good thing or a bad thing … I don’t know,” she said. “This is the first year at services where the rabbi marked where emergency exits are. On the drive home, I reflected on that. I just had never heard a rabbi say that.”
Bradley Kerxton, 30, a volunteer at the Owings Mills JCC, noted that now “almost every synagogue has a police officer. Mine had four at High Holidays.”
“At my shul, Beth Tfiloh, we redoubled our armed security throughout the entire campus, particularly for the High Holidays,” said William J. Fox, chair of the FIDF Mid-Atlantic Region and national FIDF board member, via email. “And for the first time in our history, High Holiday attendees had to show their tickets to gain admittance.”
“Notwithstanding the growing incidents of anti-Semitism here and around the world,” Fox added, “most American Jews still had the subconscious mindset of ‘it can’t/won’t happen here.’ Pittsburgh washed away that mindset in a tsunami of reality.”
Mordechai Gordon, outside of Mama Leah’s Pizza recently, certainly has felt that new reality, saying the shooting made people in the Jewish community realize how vulnerable they are. “A lot of crazy people out there,” he said.
“Everybody was concerned that one guy could kill 11 people during worship. Even non-Jews were shocked,” said Zalman Berger, the son of Holocaust survivors. “We are a different city altogether now. They say there hasn’t been an attack like this ever in the U.S. They say this is the Holocaust of the U.S. It’s painful to be reminded of something similar.”
The ubiquity of such attacks has not been lost on Baltimoreans.
“It can happen anywhere, at any location,” Kerton said.
“It happens everywhere,” echoed Baum. “I think media has a large part in that, too. Hate groups are widespread, especially with access to social media.”
Charles Morrissette, 49, of Glen Burnie, has also noticed an increase in hate. “Yeah, unfortunately,” he said, while setting up a DJ board at the Sukkah City fest recently. “Especially in these political times, the political climate is more divisive. Anyone not a part of the ‘larger culture’, you know, has seen it.”
Along with the fear and the sobering realizations in the wake of the shooting, there has come a sense of unity.
“We feel it when other Jews suffer,” Gordon said.
“I think it made us more cautious but also brought us together,” said Kerton. “We realized we need each other, and that we actually support each other.”
Such support will be seen on Oct. 27 in various communal efforts. The JCC of Owings Mills will have a table on that day where members will be able to light candles.
The Jewish Federation of Howard County encourages community members to join a virtual memorial service at 5 p.m. through pausewithpittsburgh.com.
“One of the fundamental goals of the Jewish Federation of Howard County is to bring our local community together and to build a stronger Jewish community,” said Executive Director Ralph Grunewald. “We must remember this act of senseless hatred, commemorate the innocent lives that were lost and raise the consciousness of our local community about the dangers of anti-Semitism.”
Despite such dangers, for Baum and many others in the community, life — and Jewish expression — must go on.
“I am a proud Jewish person; I hate to feel I shouldn’t express or take that with me in my attire,” she said, also offering words of advice to others: “Be kind to your peers. Everyone comes from different walks of life, but take time to get to know them.”