In the wake of a bloody anti-Semitic terror attack that claimed the lives of 11 Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha synagogue, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and its donors have committed a minimum of $100,000 towards emergency grants to synagogues and other Jewish organizations that are struggling to afford security.
According to an Oct. 27 joint statement from The Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, 100 percent of donations to The Federation’s Communal Security Fund will go toward “meeting the immediate security needs of the synagogues and organizations serving our local community.”
The statement also encouragedindividuals and institutions looking for resources for coping with the mental and emotional fallout from the attack to reach out to representatives from the Jewish Social Services Agency (JSSA). (See p. 29 for tips from JSSA for talking to children about anti-Semitism.)
The week before the attack, the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) announced that a $1.7 million security grant had been awarded to Baltimore-area Jewish institutions from the Federal Nonprofit Security Grant. BJC Deputy Director Sarah Mersky credited the The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and other JCRCs across the country for their partnership in advocating to their federal delegations about the importance of these funds for Jewish communities nationwide.
a National Tragedy
On Shabbat morning Oct. 27, Robert Bowers burst into the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill community armed with multiple guns shouting, “All Jews must die!” He murdered 11 people and left six injured, including four police officers. Police subdued and arrested Bowers, an avowed white supremacist, before he could escape, and he is facing numurous federal and state charges for his crimes.
In the days following the deadliest attack targeting Jewish people in American history, vigils and solidarity events were held across the Greater Washington and Baltimore area.
On the morning of Oct. 28, over 1,000 people gathered for the BJC's “memorial gathering and stand against anti-Semitism” at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Elected officials in attendance included Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. John Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats; Cardin is a University of Pittsburgh alumnus. There was also a separate vigil held at the Baltimore Holocaust Museum downtown, where attendees included members of the Muslim and Christian communities.
The next day, over 4,000 people attended an interfaith vigil, organized by Federation and JCRC, at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., according to estimates from the organizers. Those who couldn’t make it into the overflowing synagogue gathered on the adjacent street.
Local and state officials, including DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan addressed the audience in the congregation’s sanctuary. There was notable attendance by Muslim, Christian, and Sikh clergy members, who joined Jewish clergy of all denominations in front of the aron (ark) in a call for unity at the end of the program.
Another interfaith vigil that night was also full to bursting: At Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland, an estimated 700 people packed into the sanctuary and at least 300 more were in the halls and a classroom as well as outside the building.
Resources for Preparedness
“We are experiencing an unprecedented increase in acts of harassment, vandalism, and violence in the form of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States,” said Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Doron Ezickson.
After about two decades of leveling off, 2016 saw the beginning of a marked increase in reported incidents — and not every incident is reported, he noted.
“And then in 2017, we saw a 56 percent increase,” he said. It was the largest year-on-year increase the ADL has ever seen in the four decades it has been gathering data.
The Secure Community Network (SCN) is one of the organizations the ADL partners with to help communities looking for guidance on security for Jewish institutions.
Established in 2004 as the first national nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to homeland security initiatives on behalf of the American Jewish community, SCN is a project of JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Recognized in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a national model for information sharing and faith-based homeland security initiatives, SCN operates a full-time threat and information sharing center to monitor and report on threats and security events impacting the American Jewish community.
SCN is physically based in New York, but its website features a Homeland Security & Preparedness Training Center. The Center aggregates videos and articles to help organizations and institutions train their staff on security awareness, policies, and recommended practices in the event of various emergencies. These range from run-of-the-mill emergencies to natural disasters to active shooter events and suspicious packages.
At the local level, the Community Security Service (CSS) is part of a network of volunteers who proactively protect their synagogues and community events. They work closely with law enforcement as well as Jewish organizations like SCN.
Local institutions have “varying” degrees of protections in place, said CSS Washington DC Metro Area Regional Manager Vera Krimnus, but standard measures should include a security committee, locks on all doors, evacuation and lockdown plans, and a good relationship with local police. She also recommended a team of volunteers maintaining control of the door and observing the outside of the building during events.
“Synagogues should encourage situational awareness amongst the congregation and security committees should act as focal points for security concerns. For us, the greatest resource is the knowledge and vigilance of the community who are vested and can quickly identify suspicious behaviors,” said Krimnus. She added that Jewish Federations, the ADL, and SCN all offer information online on obtaining grants for physical improvements or support developing an emergency plan.
The Blame Game
Outrage and grief at the attack is being channeled into anger at President Donald Trump and partisan finger-pointing over the shooter’s rampage.
Some members of the local Jewish community stepped up their criticism of refugee advocacy organization HIAS and other Jewish institutions’ vociferous opposition to the Trump administration’s policies, arguing that by making Jewish organizations tools of a liberal agenda they are making the Jewish community a target. Bowers railed against HIAS in social media posts and told SWAT officers after his arrest that he believes the Jews are plotting to commit “genocide against [his] people.”
It is believed he chose his target based on the synagogue’s participation in HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat campaign. In his last post before the shooting, he wrote: “Can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Conservatives have also pointed out that the political right does not have a monopoly on anti-Semitism, citing the intimidation Jewish students face on campuses courtesy of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as well as relationships between left-wing political figures and Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic leader, Louis Farrakhan.
Yet it isn’t members of the political left who are shooting black couples in grocery stores and Jews in synagogues, came the counterargument from other community members. And even though the president condemned the attack, just the week before he was using dog-whistles for white nationalists during his rallies. (In a political context, a “dog-whistle” is a strategic communication tool that takes words or phrases that have a specific meaning for a specific group and embeds them in an statement that would seem innocuous to anyone unfamiliar with that coded language.)
Indeed, Bowers’ social media posts parroted Trump’s language about the dangers posed by immigrants — but they also criticized Trump for “being surrounded by k****” and questioned his credentials as a nationalist.
According to Ezickson, a leader at any level in this country should not be able to “plead ignorance” at this point that divisive rhetoric that paints another group as a dangerous threat, coupled with the amplifying and community-building power of the internet, may result in violence.
“These haters are, in our view, unquestionably feeling emboldened by the political environment to express their hate not only online but in person: in Charlottesville, on college campuses, in rallies of their own. Unfortunately the most extreme of them, and perhaps the most troubled of them, are willing to do so with violent conduct as well.”
Anis Modi contributed to this article.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.