Local faith leaders urge outreach – not guns – following last week's synagogue shooting. Last Saturday we saw the most violent act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, where during Sabbath services a lone gunman killed eleven members of the congregation and wounded several others, including police officers. The worst mass shooting since the Parkland High massacre last year, the attack is being called an irrefutable hate crime, and has sparked fresh debate over the country’s ever surging problem with gun violence and white supremacy.
Many on the left are crying out for stricter gun legislation, along with politicians divesting from the NRA; they have criticized President Trump’s divisive rhetoric at campaign rallies, one of which was held the very afternoon of the attack, as well as his failure to denounce white supremacists, and for aligning with the leader of the KKK David Duke, thus opening the doors for bigotry and violent hate crimes. Meanwhile, President Trump has suggested that if the synagogue had had an armed guard, the brutal attack that left eleven people dead, many of them elderly, might not have taken place.
The Tree of Life attack was a horrifying culmination of a terror filled week for the nation. Fourteen pipe bombs were delivered to politicians, media outlets, and left leaning philanthropists – including a prominent Hungarian Jew, George Soros, and actor/director Robert DeNiro.
The week also saw a hate crime that left two black people dead in a grocery store in Kentucky that was originally intended to target a black church. To say that the nation is extremely divided is an understatement. And, as has happened throughout history, and we are seeing play out now, religious institutions find themselves in the crosshairs of the political division.
I asked various religious leaders in the Roosevelt Island community to share their thoughts on last week’s synagogue tragedy, and what they thought of the idea proposed by President Trump of placing armed security guards at places of worship.
Rabbi Joel Shaiman, Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation
When the President planned to visit the mourning community, Jewish leaders publicly stated that he would not be welcomed there until he denounced white supremacy. Protestors in Squirrel Hill, the largely Jewish suburb of Pittsburgh that is known for being the home of Mr. Rogers, turned their backs and took a knee when the President’s motorcade passed by. Critics argued that Americans became more outraged over a man taking a knee to protest police violence (referencing Colin Kaepernick, ex-football player turned Nike ambassador and icon of the Resistance) than they did over a gunman slaughtering Jews where they went to pray.
Rabbi Shaiman poses with RIJC President, Nina Lublin
Shaiman, a Pennsylvania native, has a lot of personal connections with Squirrel Hill and the Tree of Life Synagogue. “[Saturday’s] tragic events are particularly resonant to me. I am a Pennsylvania boy. My three sisters are all graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. One sister lives a half a mile from Tree of Life, and my nephews attended pre-school at the synagogue. As information on the victims begins to become known, I am hearing some of the details, and they are very close to home: my brother-in-law’s physician; my Philadelphia sister’s friend’s aunt’s friend’s mother. I am learning that I have friends who grew up at Tree of Life.”
He added last Saturday’s mass shooting to a growing list of uniquely American tragedies along with Sandy Hook and Parkland. “Saturday was another terrible day for all Americans. More individuals – who gathered together, to study and learn, to celebrate, to worship – have lost their lives due to senseless hatred and the proliferation of guns in our society.”
For American Jews last Saturday was especially terrible, said Shaiman, “who as the Talmud says, ‘are responsible for one another... Kol Yisroel Averim Zeh Lazeh.’ Our hearts break for our sisters and brothers at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. Let us pray for the comfort of the bereaved and the healing of the injured. Let us give tzedakah in their names, and let us not be driven in fear from our synagogues.
I am reminded of the history of Jews in America... my history. My hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is the 17th oldest Jewish community in America and Canada, dating back to the early 1850s. The synagogue building of Temple B’nai B’rith was dedicated in 1851, joining the five established Christian churches in the city of 3000 residents. According to the New York-based Jewish periodical The Occident, Christian residents of Wilkes-Barre had contributed about $1000 (about $35,000 today) to the synagogue building fund, on condition that the original plans for a “frame building” be changed in favor of “a more substantial structure.”
The history of Jews in America is not anti-semitism. It is the Christian immigrants of Wilkes-Barre – first English, followed by Poles, Magyars, Irish, Italians, and Slovaks – who supported and invested in the German Jews, and welcomed us to join them in the American experiment. I hope and pray that we Americans can return to our founding principles... speedily in our days... so that our country truly becomes a place that George Washington envisioned when he wrote his famous letter to the Newport Jewish community in 1790, quoting the Hebrew prophet Micah... a place where “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Rabbi Zalman Duchman, Chabad of Roosevelt Island
For Rabbi Duchman it’s simple, “Our Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, has ingrained in our hearts the only way for us to respond.” He believes that instead of fighting back, his role is to help people see one another for who they actually are, understanding that we are all connected. “To combat indiscriminate evil, with indiscriminate love, to combat hating people just because of who they are with loving people just because of who they are – a human being created in the image of G-d. Darkness is fought with light, not sticks and brooms.”
“At Chabad, that is really at the core of what we do every day. We have to honor these victims by dedicating ourselves even more to helping people see each other for the soul that shines within them, and by extension see ourselves as part of one whole.”
Regarding whether or not to hire armed guards to protect their flock, Duchman demurred, “As a Rabbi, it is my responsibility to teach Torah, to motivate and uplift people, this question is a question that needs to be addressed by security experts and the governmental agencies responsible.”
Flyer for Roosevelt Island Chabad Shabbat Service
Arshi Saeed of the Roosevelt Island Islamic Society
Putting the responsibility on the place of worship, as Saeed says, arguably takes away the freedom of worship Americans are guaranteed by first amendment to the constitution. “I’m very disturbed and saddened by the recent shootings that occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue. It is deeply concerning that the onus is being placed on places of worship to hire armed guards to prevent further incidents rather than taking other approaches to prevent gun crime.”
Pastor Dan Sadlier, Hope Covenant Church
In a reference to Trump’s statement on how this could have been avoided had there been armed guards inside the temple, Sadlier says, “We do not personally judge those who long to protect themselves and loved ones through the right to bear arms, but it would be remiss not to point out that fighting violence with violence stands in stark contrast to the way of Jesus.”
He says, “We hold to a firm belief at Hope church (which stems from the life and ministry of Jesus) that violence begets violence, and that the most revolutionary and transformative power is not self preservation, but self sacrificial love seen most brilliantly in Christ’s life and death.”
Pastor Dan Sadlier, Hope Covenant Church
Sadlier cites scripture to support his non-violent approach, “It is fitting that Jesus begins his ministry by quoting from the Book of Isaiah Isaiah, chapter 61. However, Jesus actually leaves off the last sentence of this well known verse in the old testament that reads…’To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance.’
Jesus' omission of the last sentence was his way of saying, ‘I’m here to show you the full extent of God’s love. It is not only for one nation, but for all. It is not only for one nation, but even for their enemies. Christ was communicating that vengeance begets vengeance, and the way to radically transform the world is through grace, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and the pursuit of those who are wildly different than us.’”
Reverend Richard Baker, East River Catholics, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Church
Father Baker believes ignorance and mental illness are to blame for the Tree of Life shooting. He says, “We live in a society where we can’t talk to one another. We can’t know about each other. We breed this. We breed absolute ignorance of a person who is Muslim, a person who is Jewish, a person who is Christian, a person who is Shinto or Sikh… We breed ignorance right within our own public school system when we say we can’t talk about what other people believe. We breed it.”
He recalled an experience when he was criticized after after mass for extolling the beauty of having Christmas and Chanukah fall at the same time, “I was attacked at the end of mass. ‘How could you talk about those people who killed Jesus!’”
“And I said, ‘Excuse me, We killed Jesus. Your sins killed Jesus. Thank you very much. And it was almost… demonic. That’s why I always say when there’s an attack against Jews there’s something deeper there that I see. I’ve experienced it.”
Baker says they already employ security measures, albeit unarmed. He says, “We had to have somebody there in a uniform saying that somebody’s in charge here. We’ve had some problems because of the mental illness problem here in New York, which is so bad. The Holy Days bring out the worst in people. The issue is that people are unhinged more than ever. Mental illness is rampant. It is epidemic, and nobody is taking care of this at all.”
Pointing to a specific example, he says, “We had a woman on Holy Saturday… she decided she was going to blow out all the candles, and then she was going to take them and toss them. Because the Jews were coming, and they were going to destroy Christ’s resurrection. She was completely mentally ill."