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The Anti-Semitic Murders in Pittsburgh Today--We Are Distressed, But Should We Be Shocked?

Havdalah and Vigil in Squirrel Hill for Shooting Victims

The horrifying anti-Semitic attack today on Tree of Life*Or Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh is shocking and distressing. Our prayers are with the families of the 11 people murdered and with the six people wounded, including four police officers. May those who were wounded recover to a refuah shleimah, a full physical and spiritual healing. Those who died in the shul in Squirrel Hill are souls taken al kidush HaShem, attending Shabbat services and a bris, and must be considered martyrs who died sanctifying God’s name. May those who loved them find comfort in the face of this terrible loss. Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, their synagogue and their community.

We are taught in Proverbs that the Torah is a “tree of life to those who grasp it.” That increases the painful irony of today’s evil act at a synagogue named “Tree of Life.” We seek peace, harmony and joy on Shabbat in the synagogue, especially when we attend a bris. When a man spewing Anti-Semitic abuse shoots up a shul on Shabbes our horror at such an act, especially in a temple sub-named “Or l’Simcha,” the light of joy, knows no bounds.

So we are shocked and distressed. But while our distress is understandable and appropriate at this blatant and brutal act, we shouldn’t be shocked. This is one of the worst Anti-Semitic incidents in the US in many years, yet we have become conditioned to the nearly routine insanity of violent attacks on churches, schools, nightclubs and theaters on a nearly weekly basis. In a way, the likelihood of such a terrible incident targeting a synagogue had become pretty high. It is awful to say this, but if churches, clubs, and theaters are being attacked and pipe bombs put in the mail, temples are going to be next.

Yet this recurrent American public violence is neither normal nor acceptable for a civilized society. We must decide that enough is enough. This time we must act to prevent a recurrence. It can be stopped, and we must insist that it is.

We have also become conditioned to accept that hate speech, including Anti-Semitism, is simply part of our American right to free expression in 2018, especially in social media and in online forums. When the insanity of Charlottesville took place in 2017 most of us proclaimed that such a public display of hate speech, Anti-Semitism and racism had no place in our country. Yet we have continued to tolerate the open disparagement of prominent Jews by fringe organizations, and allowed ugly insinuations about influential Jews to cross the line into slander.

This is also not acceptable for a civilized society and for its officials. We must decide that enough is enough.

This past Friday night we celebrated our second Shabbat service of Congregation Beit Simcha. (It was a wonderful night, and I’ll share more about that separately.) We have a security guard at our services, and our first two weeks—and next week, November 2—of Shabbat services have been held at the Evenchik Philanthropy Center of the Jewish Federation, which has elaborate security provisions built into its new building. We are as safe as we reasonably can be.

But we are none of us truly safe so long as public hate speech is the order of the day, and decency is on the retreat.

We cannot do more to help directly than simply offer condolences and prayers for the victims in Pittsburgh. But we can do a great deal more to heal our society by insisting that hate speech of any kind must be eradicated. And we can insist on decency and respect in our public discourse and from our media.

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