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Mending after the Tree of Life: Jewish students respond to synagogue shooting

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Shots fired. Shots fired at people peacefully practicing their faith.

Members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh worshipped in service on Oct. 27 when a gunman entered the sanctuary and opened fire. Eleven people were killed and six more were injured, including two police officers. During the shooting, the gunman reportedly made anti-Semitic statements, and after the attack he told a member of the SWAT team that he wanted all Jews to die. CNN reported that this shooting was the deadliest attack on Jews in United States history.

This event left SPA students reeling, but for the Jewish community at SPA, this shooting was more personal.

Junior Libby Cohen felt a mix of emotions during the aftermath of the shooting.

“I felt a lot of different things; I felt fear, sorrow, anger. Just a lot of different feelings,” Cohen said.

Sophomore Hannah Davis-Jacobs didn’t know how to react.

“I felt frozen…” Davis-Jacobs said. “I got a notification and it said 11 dead in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and I just felt my heart drop. My fingers felt numb and I felt like I couldn’t move, I felt like someone was sitting on my chest.”

“This could have been my synagogue,” senior Ethan Less said.

Though this news was horrifying to Cohen, it did not surprise her.

“It’s something that shouldn’t happen, but sadly enough you can see anti-Semitism in so many ways, so many places. It obviously wasn’t expected but it’s also something that I know needs to be fixed. Constantly needs to be fixed,” Cohen said. “There’s never just a stop to it.”

It’s not just Pittsburgh; it’s the community

Even though Pittsburgh is hundreds of miles away, this attack felt close to home for many Jewish people.

“Most [Jewish] people don’t directly know the victims of the attack, but they’re still our community; they’re still our brothers and sisters so we lost a part of our family that day,” Davis-Jacobs said.

After the shooting the hashtag #showupforshabbat encouraged Jewish people to go to synagogue on the Saturday after the shooting in order to show the world that the Jewish community is strong and will not be silenced by terrorists.

Davis-Jacobs wore her Mogen David necklace every day in the week following the shooting as a sign of her pride in being Jewish. The Saturday after the shooting she attended her synagogue, Darchei Noam, and arrived to see many more people than she sees on a usual Saturday.

“There was a giant turnout at every synagogue around the country,” she said. “People were having talks, people were having vigils and ceremonies, and people were mourning the losses in this community that they had never met, just because it was so close to us. Close to us in our hearts in that you don’t need to know [the victims] to feel their pain.”

Cohen goes to Bethel synagogue every Saturday. Her synagogue had many more attendees at the Nov. 3 service as well.

“There were 200 more people at my synagogue [that] weekend than there were other [weeks]. And there were also non-Jewish people there who were coming together with our community,” Cohen said.

The community is changing and part of that is increased security

Cohen immediately noticed the differences at her synagogue the week after the shooting.

“I saw a police car at the entrance on high alert, which is what I expected to happen,” Cohen said, “and I know that’s what all synagogues and temples were doing to deal with it that next weekend. But it was just something that I wasn’t really prepared to see… So it was something that’s just kind of startling.”

Not only did she observe increased security from the police department, she noticed subtle differences in the way people interacted with her.

“When I walked in the door they said ‘Shabbat Shalom’ to me, which is a regular greeting that I usually hear on Saturday mornings for the holiest day of the week, Shabbat. And that’s usually what the greeters say but it was something in the way they looked at me and made sure I said it back to them as kind of a security measure. Like, if you know what this means then come in. And everyone’s welcome obviously but it was a security measure that I really did notice, just the way people talked to each other… I was struck by that,” Cohen said.

Synagogues generally have an open door policy to welcome anyone to come in and be a part of the community. But with attacks like the Pittsburg shooting, security measures have increased at Synagogues in the Twin Cities according to MPR News.

Sophomore Levi Mellin attends Mount Zion Temple. He has seen the process of increasing security speed up after the attack.

“My mom is on the safety committee and they have been slowly progressing in a way to make the synagogue more safe while keeping it welcoming at the same time… since the shooting they’ve been ramping it up. They’ve been trying to bring a sense of community at the synagogue while at the same time keeping it safe and secure,” Mellin said.

There’s an ongoing quest to find a balance

Senior Isaac Fink attends Mount Zion every Saturday. He believes that the balance between a welcoming community and security is hard to find.

“One of our biggest values is having a really open community. Anyone can come to synagogue on the Saturday services; the doors are wide open. Recently it’s been tending towards more security. Now there is police that guard [the synagogue]. And even though I want to have safety, I don’t like it that way,” Fink said, “I like having a really open community. A lot of people do.”

Davis-Jacobs said the security feels like the right choice.

“I believe that the armed guards do help, because it is a sense of intimidation for people who would want to otherwise cause terror, and to the community it’s almost like a security blanket because we know that they’re here to protect us,” she said.

The rise of anti-semitism isn’t solely political

A lot of people didn’t see the shooting as an anti-Semitic action which seems very problematic. A lot of people saw it as a political move. Even though it is a national issue, it was an anti-Semitic attack.”

— Isaac Fink

Despite the reports of anti-Semitic rhetoric from the shooter during and after the shooting, some claim this shooting was a political issue; not an anti-Semitic one.

“A lot of people didn’t see the shooting as an anti-Semitic action which seems very problematic. A lot of people saw it as a political move,” Fink said. “Even though it is a national issue, it was an anti-Semitic attack.”

The Anti Defamation League reported a 57% rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017.

Anti-Semitism is present in every Jewish person’s life differently. Some Jews don’t feel that anti-Semitism affects them in their day to day life, but for many, anti-Semitism is always present in their lives someway and somehow.

Davis-Jacobs recalls experiencing anti-Semitism as a child before she could even understand what it meant. She often gets angry or judgmental looks when she wears her Mogen David and has been called Jewish slurs on the internet.

“It’s really something that happens on the daily basis. Maybe not for every Jewish person, but from my experience, it has happened a lot in my life…,” she said. “A lot of non-Jews don’t realize that this happens and they kind of brush it off because they don’t think it happens often, but it’s really a commonly occurring thing that most if not all Jews can at least somewhat relate to.”

It’s a time to live in faith… and learn more about the faith of others

For Jews, simply living their faith is a stand against anti-Semitism and the people who want to tear Jews down.

“As a Jew, the best I can do at this moment is to embrace, [to] celebrate my Judaism,” Less said.

Moving forward, Davis-Jacobs wants people to be aware of anti-Semitism and hopes more people call out anti-Semitism they see or hear.

“If you hear someone say something along the lines of an anti-Semitic comment or a joke… you definitely need to say ‘this is not okay,’ because this causes pain. This is harmful. These words mean so much more to people than someone may think,” Davis-Jacobs said.

Cohen believes that education can be a way to work towards eradicating anti-Semitism.

“There needs to be a lot of teaching done,” she said, “In history classes and at schools… I think there just needs to be a bigger and better teaching of the Holocaust, of anti-Semitism, of hate crimes, so we really learn from this.”

On a smaller scale, Davis-Jacobs believes that non-Jewish students can support their Jewish peers and just be there for them during this unbearably hard time.

“You just have to make sure the Jewish people in your community are feeling safe and feeling welcome,” she said, “because there are a lot of people that don’t want us to feel welcome.”

Originally published in the November 2018 edition of The Rubicon

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Evelyn Lillemoe, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sophomore Evelyn Lillemoe is an A&E editor on the Rubicon. This is her first year on staff. She loves journalism because it is an opportunity to share...

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