Photograph by Samuel Heller
On Saturday October 27, a shooting occurred at the Tree Of Life synagogue during Shabbat morning services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 and injuring seven, making it the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in United States history. Beforehand, the shooter had posted anti-Semitic remarks on a social media website called Gab, and during the shooting he allegedly yelled, “Death to all Jews.” In the week following the shooting, numerous Bay Area synagogues and other Bay Area groups of Jewish faith joined others around the country, and hosted vigils, dinners, and religious services to mourn the lost victims and protest anti-Semitism.
One of the bigger local commemorations was held at Congregation Beth El, a synagogue in North Berkeley. After Shabbat, the ritual weekly day of rest for Jews, ended on October 27, they held a vigil for the community that was attended by at least 700 people. According to Rabbi Rebekah Stern, one of the rabbis at Beth El, the purpose of the service was to create a space for the Berkeley community to come together to sing, pray, and be in solidarity with each other. Beth El also asked the Berkeley Police Department to step up their presence near the synagogue, a request that was echoed at other synagogues throughout the Bay Area.
There were also gatherings following the shooting put on by another synagogue in the Bay Area, Kehilla Community Synagogue of Oakland. The night of the shooting, Kehilla hosted a vigil, cosponsored by faith group Bend the Arc. Kehilla, alongside numerous other organizations, also cosponsored a vigil at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on the night of Monday, October 29. According to an email sent out to the JCC board, the purpose of the event was to “focus on being together through song, Jewish ritual, and healing.” It also stated that they “reached out to other faith leaders and allies of the Jewish community.” Much of this event was held through songs, both traditional Jewish prayers such as “Yehi Shalom,” which calls for peace, and more modern pieces like “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” and “Imagine.”
At the event, attendees were also invited to call out how they were feeling in the wake of the attack, and responses ranged from numbness and sadness to anger and fear. Speakers emphasized the support of Jewish and religious organizations around the Bay Area and the country, and leaders from Christian and Muslim temples expressed their sadness and solidarity with much of the Jewish community. These speakers also emphasized the need for togetherness and support in the wake of the shooting, and for attendees to allow themselves to feel whatever emotions they were experiencing. Organizers also read out the victims’ names.
Another of the many events that Kehilla helped organize is open-door Shabbat. The intention of this open-door Shabbat, according to Rabbi Dev Noily, the head rabbi at Kehilla, was to make people feel safe in this time of uncertainty. “Instead of closing the doors and feeling like the synagogue isn’t a safe space, Kehilla opened the doors and invited in anyone who was sending them good wishes,” said Noily. According to Noily, that helped to create a feeling of safety among the Kehilla community.
Although the gatherings were more about solidarity and healing, the possible root of this attack was discussed multiple times during these gatherings.
Pamela Swedlow, a resident of Berkeley, California who grew up across the street from the Tree of Life synagogue, pointed to the fact that for this hate crime the attacker used a semi-automatic weapon. According to her, the attacks against synagogues in the past have been spray painting and defacing gardens. “I think our crazy access to crazy amounts of fire power makes it possible to do this as easy as spray paint a wall. It’s really just pressing a button,” said Swedlow.
The rise in anti-Semitism and white nationalism is also cited by some as a reason for this shooting. “When an overtly anti-Semitic act like this occurs, it reactivates that historical trauma, reminding us of what we are never really able to forget — that Jews are always vulnerable. Most Jewish adults have felt an increasing sense of insecurity and uncertainty in the last couple of years as, once again, we have seen, heard, and experienced the normalization of anti-Semitism in the public square, both in language and in deed,” said Stern when asked about the size of the reaction to the Pittsburgh shooting.
Noily echoes this sentiment of the normalization of hate as a cause for these shootings. “A lot of [people] are looking at these things as expressions of white nationalism that in some ways the Trump administration has made space for,” said Noily. Since the shooting, Vice President Mike Pence has denied any links of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric to the shooting, although Trump has yet to condemn white supremacy.
One thing that many people agree on is the scope of the response by the Jewish community to the actions of hatred. “We had so many people there,” said Noily of the open-door Shabbat. “It was unbelievable. The whole sanctuary was filled, we had chairs on the bima, we had people spilling out into the lobby and the social hall.” Stern agreed with this feeling of support. “We needed to come together as a Jewish community, and it meant everything to be joined by members of the local Berkeley and wider East Bay community” said Stern.