On the morning of Saturday, October 27, 2018, just like on every Saturday morning since 1864, Shabbat services were being held within the Tree of Life synagogue in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. That morning, the Jewish faith was celebrated as friends sang familiar prayers in a collective voice, read and parsed a Torah portion, and circumcised an eight-day-old infant in the sacred ceremony of Brit Milah.
This ordinary tranquility was shattered violently by Robert Bowers, who stormed the synagogue carrying an AR-15 and shot randomly into the crowd, killing eleven and injuring six more. The victims included two inseparable brothers who would proudly greet their neighbors at the door of the sanctuary, a couple who had been married years before in that very room, and a lively 97-year-old Holocaust survivor. This was the most devastating act of anti-semitic violence and terror in American history.
To attack anyone in their place of worship is a heinous act, and yet one that we’ve seen time and again in our country. Gun violence, too, has become commonplace in America. When I heard the news of the shooting, I couldn’t wrap my head around what had happened—perhaps because of the magnitude of the hatred, but also because of how numb I have become. However, I thought this particular shooting should have felt different for me. I am Jewish, and my religion is at the core of my identity in many ways. When Bowers took the lives of Jewish men and women in Pittsburgh, he was attacking who I am. Yet, for many days after that Saturday morning, I had trouble registering the shooting.
From an early age, I have been made aware of the realities of anti-semitism. I know of the hatred that has been unleashed against our people for millennia. I have long heard the stories of the struggles of the tiny yet resilient Jewish nation: of our slavery in Egypt, of the pogroms in Eastern Europe, of the Holocaust.
And yet, though I am Jewish, I am also a New Yorker. We live in a city more populated by Jews than Jerusalem, and we attend a school where Jewish students often seem to outnumber members of any other religion. And we don’t talk about anti-semitism. We don’t discuss bigotry against Jews because it isn’t apparent in our lives: surrounded by Jews, in one of the most Jewish cities in the world, these issues often seem distant and irrelevant. Beyond the occasional microaggression, I don’t experience anti-semitism on a day-to-day basis.
Even so, anti-semitism has existed beyond Egypt, beyond Germany, and continues to exist beyond Pittsburgh. Just days after the shooting, swastikas were scrawled on a house at the end of my block. Union Temple in Park Slope was then defaced with hate messages against Jews. Anti-semitism isn’t as far removed from our lives as it may seem to be. The fact that Packer is full of Jewish students shouldn’t serve as an excuse to not discuss an issue that still thrives in the underbelly of our country—and, evidently, not so far from home.
The reason I did not know how to react to the Tree of Life shooting was because I cannot understand anti-semitism in a modern context. I have no trouble discussing the Holocaust at length, but the problem lies in the fact that I have viewed the event as cemented firmly in the past. And while nothing of that enormity will likely happen in America, because I, and many of the Jews in our community, have viewed anti-semitism as a long-gone form of hate, I feel I do not have the tools to understand anti-semitic acts like the Pittsburgh shooting.
Herein lies the difference: that could have been me. The Holocaust is foreign—terrifying, yes, but so alien at the same time. But I attend a synagogue much like Tree of Life; it could’ve been my congregation that was attacked. And since I’ve rarely discussed anti-Jewish sentiment in our country now, in a concrete way, upon hearing about Pittsburgh, I became shell-shocked to the point of shutting down. It was not until I heard my rabbi speak during Saturday morning services the next weekend about burying our dead and about how to move forward that I broke down.
It is true that my Judaism doesn’t generally make my life more difficult. I can easily choose to hide that part of myself, and even so, I do not need to do so in order to live comfortably. Thus, the fact that other, more pressing issues are discussed to a greater degree is warranted and important. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that at Packer, we—myself included—have almost completely ignored the issue of anti-semitism, even though it is clearly alive today.We cannot wait for a massacre to talk about the issues that exist in our country. This is true of any issue. While it is naturally difficult to avoid this, our discussions almost always happen after an issue comes into the public eye, forcing us to play catch-up. The CCE forums are only the first step toward rectifying this issue. The only way for us to properly process these events, as healthily as possible, is to talk about them before tragedy strikes.