Remembering the Tree of Life attack, three years on

Posted on October 30, 2021

I don’t remember much about the specifics of the Shabbat service that morning, what I do remember is that my phone kept vibrating in my pocket. While this has become more normal in our Covid world, this was 3 years ago, and so while a vibration or two might have been expected, this was way more than usual. As soon as the service ended I took my phone out of my pocket and realized why so many people had been trying to contact me. There had been a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and people were reaching out to check that we were okay and to make sure that we had seen the news. Cantor Hollis reached out to family members in Pittsburgh, who were sheltering in place; while Rabbi Jordi and I went up to my office, and we sprang into action making phone calls, drafting an email, and getting ready to respond as a community. Some people gathered the next day in the synagogue, during our Religious School program, and several hundred people joined us for a vigil later that week, including many friends and neighbors from the surrounding religious communities.

At the time we were all in shock. How could this be happening in the 21st century … to the Jewish community … in America of all places.

And at the same time, it was not shocking at all. In many ways it was the end product of words turned into action. We had heard the voices of hate rising, growing more confident as political leaders failed to condemn them or actively encouraged them. A year earlier, we had witnessed the march through the streets of Charlottesville, ostensibly it was to protest the removal of the statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. But very soon the racist hate became apparent as they turned their attention towards us and chanted through the streets: “Jews will not replace us.” The dreadful shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue saw hateful words transformed into hateful actions, with the murder of eleven innocent people, an event we mourn together as Jews and as Americans.

And here we are three years later.

One of the narratives of the American story in general and of the Jewish community in particular is about American exceptionalism – those elements in America’s creation that make this country unique and different from all others, especially the European nations from which the Founders of America came. And this uniqueness spills over into the Jewish community’s own self-perception. During my rabbinic studies in our American Jewish history course, the second class was entitled American Jewish exceptionalism. Looking back at those notes from 14 years ago, it seems somewhat dated, and I wonder how the professor might change the class if he were teaching it today.

He emphasized the ways in which America is different: the absence of a medieval cultural legacy targeting Jews, the foundation of this country on the basis of enlightenment principles, and the pluralism that was present from the very beginning. He considered the way that Jews have embraced the American dream, with Irving Berlin writing God bless America and the words on the Statue of Liberty coming from Emma Lazarus. As I look back at these notes, he seems clear that the American Jewish community is exceptional because we are living in the most tolerant and accepting society in history and because every other great Jewish community has been kicked out eventually.

On that morning at the Tree of Life synagogue, I think that the myth of American Jewish exceptionalism, if not destroyed, was at least significantly challenged. Violent antisemitism had come to our doors, and while it clearly was not the first violent, antisemitic attack we have experienced on these shores, something about it amidst a rising climate of hate felt different. And there was a sense of fear about what the future might hold for the American Jewish community.

And this Shabbat we can reflect on the three years since that attack and the situation that Jews in America are facing today.

Earlier this week the AJC, the American Jewish Committee, published its 2021 report on the state of antisemitism in America. As their director of public affairs, Avi Mayer, writes: “The overall picture that emerges from the report, which is based on the largest-ever surveys of American Jews and the U.S. general public on antisemitism in America, is grim.”[1] Some of the striking elements of the report include the fact that one in four American Jews have been targeted by antisemitism over the past year, and that the same number have changed their behavior for fear of antisemitism, with 22% saying they have refrained from wearing of displaying items that might reveal their Jewishness.[2]

This is America in 2021.

Over the past three years we know that the Jewish community has spent literally millions of dollars to increase levels of security at our Jewish institutions. This investment might be new for America, but it is nothing new for those of us who were part of Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. I don’t recall ever visiting a synagogue in Britain that did not have some form of security guard at the entrance. Often these people were volunteers; for my parents’ synagogue, an expectation of membership is to “do security” at least twice a year. And there is even a national organization – The Community Security Trust, tasked with training volunteers and providing security for communal events. And compared to other places in Europe, this level of security was light.

I wonder what my American Jewish history professor would make of the way in which security measures have increased in the community and what it says about Jewish exceptionalism in America in 2021.

And right now, as people are increasingly polarized on the right and on the left, the place where these two extremes of the political spectrum seem to meet is in their shared hatred of Jews. This was true in the 19th century, and it unfortunately remains true today. With completely opposing ideologies and perceptions of what is wrong within society, both the extreme right and left find the source of their discontent in the Jewish community. To the extreme right we are the foreigners, the enemies within who are seeking to supplant and replace the white, Christian society; and to those on the extreme left we represent the establishment, the wealthy, those who are benefitting as the poor and disadvantaged suffer.

There is a real danger posed by extremist politics on both the right and the left in America in 2021.

It is easy to reflect on the last three years and to become depressed about the situation of the Jewish community in America in 2021. But while there is much cause for concern, there is also still so much room for optimism. And as Rabbi Donniel Hartmann wrote almost two years ago: “We need to talk about antisemitism in a way that does not minimize its dangers, but also does not falsely conflate the reality in America with that of pre-Holocaust Germany.”[3] It was true then and it remains true today – things might be bad, but there is still a lot of reason for hope and optimism.

While we might feel like it is only the Jewish community that remembers the terrible events of three years ago, we should be heartened to read the statement that was released this week by the President. He stated: “We must always stand up and speak out against antisemitism with clarity and conviction, and rally against the forces of hate in all its forms, because silence is complicity. We must recognize in others our shared humanity and strive to summon unexpected faith in unanticipated moments — in the hope that we might heal and rebuild.”[4] The Vice-President also offered her own statement, declaring: “We stand in solidarity with the Squirrel Hill community and the entire Jewish community.”[5] This is also America in 2021, where our political leaders speak out boldly and unequivocally in opposing and condemning the forces of antisemitism and hate.

What has also been clear in the face of rising antisemitism is the fact that we have many friends and allies out there who are ready and eager to stand with us in support and solidarity when we are attacked. We have excellent relations with our neighboring communities, so that the protagonists of hate can be in no doubt that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. This is true of the way in which we have reached out to the Greater Framingham Community Church when members of the black community were attacked, to the Islamic Center of Boston when Muslims were attacked, and to others. And similarly, they have reached out to us to offer support and solidarity when we, as a Jewish community are attacked.

Earlier this month, it was an idea from Temple Shir Tikva and the Greater Framingham Community Church that ensured that Indigenous Peoples Day was marked in MetroWest and that together we made a statement – standing against hate and spreading love.  The event, which was made possible by the work of JFS of MetroWest, made clear that attacks on members of the Jewish community, the black community, Indigenous Peoples, and all others will not be tolerated and have no place in our community.

This is part of our communal response, but what about our individual response – what can each one of us do as individuals. We need to talk openly about antisemitism, so that our friends understand our very real fears and concerns. We need to support our neighbors, so that we set an example and build communities that support one another on the local level, in the face of hate. And we need to raise our voices, calling out those who promote and encourage antisemitism and hate; we cannot turn a blind eye, instead we must shine a spotlight on them, so that they are exposed for who they are and what they believe.

It is important to remember that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem. As my friend, Jeremy Burton, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, wrote: “What is happening in America right now is not just a crisis for Jews. It is a crisis for this nation as a whole; it is an assault on the very thing that makes us all Americans.”[6] And as such, knowing the good people and communities who are our allies in this fight against antisemitism and hate, I know that together we are strong, together we are resilient, together we will not be defeated. There will be a brighter future for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.




[2] Ibid.