On Saturday, October 27th, 2018, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania experienced what is being referred to as the deadliest attack of Jewish people on American soil. According to the New York Times, an armed man by the name of Kevin Bowers entered into the place of worship with an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns, taking the lives of 11 congregants and injuring 6 others.
It has since been concluded that this act of violence was a hate crime. Bowers was said to have been screaming anti-Semitic phrases such as “All Jews must die” during this brutal attack on the synagogue. He was charged with 29 criminal accounts and has been taken into police custody for further processing.
As we begin to grapple with this event as a country, it is important to note what the New York Times refers to as a recent “surge in hate-related speech and crimes across America.” This time period has proven to be one of the most fatal in regards to marginalized groups being targeted by in hate-related acts of violence. Many have begun to connect this hate to the increasingly malicious nature of political rhetoric.
Due to the impact that this event has had on people across the nation, Bryant University held and Anti-Hate Remembrance Vigil in the Interfaith Center on October 30th, 2018. The vigil was created by the PwC Center for Diversity and Inclusion, along with the Campus Ministry and the Interfaith Center, meant to bring community members together through fighting hatred, seeking consolation, and finding comfort in community. The event gave students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to grieve for the innocent lives lost and begin an open discourse regarding the importance of combating hateful rhetoric and crimes attributed to hate.
Rabbi Steven Jablow, a highly regarded lecturer on campus, spoke at the remembrance vigil in attempts to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless period in time. His message was well received – stressing the importance of connectivity and acceptance to combat the increasing prevalence of violent and hate-filled acts within our country. His message speaks volumes to those who are trying to find light in the midst of incontrovertible darkness.
His opening message is below:
“Coming together today is an act of significant meaning. To varying degrees, we are all sharing the same feelings. We are hurt. We are shocked and shaken. We feel actual fear. For our children, for ourselves, for our country, our values, for our very safety, even for our future. We can no longer say, “it can’t happen here”, or dismiss our concern by saying “it will not continue to get worse”. We are struggling to come to grips with 72 hours in America that have forced us to face so very much hatred, anger, pain, and loss.
“In the course of several days we have seen events that have changed us, and perhaps our view and expectation of a peaceful life in our country. For quite a while we have seen the line shift in public discourse, we have seen lower and more crass behavior in the world of the internet, and we have repeatedly thought that perhaps this is as bad as it will get. We are here together today to reckon with the pain of our realization that it can get worse, and that, in fact, it has.
“Last week outside of Louisville, Kentucky, an armed white man unsuccessfully sought entry into the church of a predominantly Black congregation. Finding the doors locked, he went to a local supermarket where he executed Maurice Stallard, an African-American man inside. Walking outside, he is reported to have said to a white man he passed that “whites don’t kill whites” just before he shot and killed Vickie Jones.
“Next we faced the shocking mailing of a dozen pipe bombs to prominent politically involved individuals. Not debate, not discussions, not disagreement and discourse. Twelve bombs that could kill and maim who knows how many people. Here in the United States it sounds like a story we might hear about a dictatorial country across the world, not here in our home.
“This past Saturday morning at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while three different Jewish congregations celebrated the Sabbath, and during the Brit Milah, the naming and circumcision ceremony of an 8-day old Jewish boy, hatred and violence have once again shattered our fragile sense of peace and comfort. The killer told an officer “that he wanted all Jews to die, and also “that the Jews were committing genocide to his people”. Like Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones in Kentucky, I would like us to share the names of those killed. Let their names allow them not to simply be statistics, but the innocent individuals who were gathered in communal joy and celebration. Victims ranging from their 50’s, to 97-year-old, Rose Mallinger, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger, Jerry Rabinowitz, inseparable brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, Daniel Stein, Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, and Bernice and Sylvan Simon, a husband and wife who died together Saturday morning in the same synagogue in which they were married 60 years earlier.
“But we are here. We face darkness and despair, and we will not give up. We are here to give comfort, and to take strength. We have come together in community, to find solace and strength from our peers, and to offer it as well. When we embrace one another, we are both giving and receiving love, kindness, comfort and vigor. We seek the security of companionship in the face of loss. We embrace others who share our grief and pain, and we seek the strength to carry on. We look for support so that we can hold on to our values in the face of cruelty. The Talmud says, “one who acts in love is greater than one who acts in fear”. We gather in fellowship today to strengthen our actions based on love, even in the face of fear.
“In memory of those recent victims of hate whose names we have just shared, I will now share the traditional Hebrew memorial prayer. I invite you to either follow along in the English transliteration or to read the English translation, both of which can be found on the back of your printed program.”
He then went on to say a prayer for those whose lives were lost in the brutal attack. He once again began to speak.
“I mentioned earlier that we may actually have been changed by the experience of those recent 72 hours. I’ve come to hope that is, in fact, true. For if we do not change, we will not be able to affect change. Look around this room and take strength from each other. Look around this campus and realize the potential that we all have to create change. Our peaceful sheltered campus has so far been somewhat of an oasis in a troubled world. But we can do more. We can teach our Bryant community to go out and influence the world.
“We can no longer afford to sit quietly in the face of hatred. The hatred and violence is worse, and we have the data to prove it. The Anti-Defamation League has kept records of anti-Semitic occurrences and hate crimes in the United States for decades. From 2005 until 2015, there was a continuous decrease in anti-Jewish actions nationwide. In 2016, there was a 32% increase. In 2017, anti-Semitic acts in this country went up 58%, the largest increase ever seen. So far in 2018, in New York City alone, the level remains as high as 2017. Last year, neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us”, and a year later, three days ago, we have seen the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.
“Hateful anti-Muslim actions in this country are at the highest levels seen, the shooting deaths in Kentucky are not an aberration, but a growing normal of anti-Black American violence, and actions against the LGBTQ community continue to rise.
“We must respond so that the hate-filled voices, which are still the fringes in our society, do not grow unchecked due to silence. At this point of real life-threatening danger, silence is complicity. We must not remain silent even if we are not members of a specific target group of the hatred and the haters. The famous words of Pastor Martin Niemoller in Germany during the Nazi regime teach us that. He is best remembered for the quotation: ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.’
“Today those voices of hate are the loudest we hear at times, but they are not the majority. Look around this room, feel the aching desire for things to improve, and take heart. I believe we will look back at this time in our history as a turning point. We are here at this vigil today because we believe in love, in diversity, in pluralism, in valuing what others can offer and share.
“I look around this beautiful sanctuary and I do feel hopeful. Yes, I know it’s sort of in my job description to feel that way, but I would not feel that way if this vigil was unattended. All of us here spend a tremendous amount of our time as part of this unique academic community. Let us take advantage fearlessly of the opportunity that presents to us. To teach, formally, and informally. To program with goals of creating meaningful and sincere interactions. To change the world, one conversation at a time. Teach yourself so that you can educate others, be they your colleagues, your students, your family, or your friends.
“Take your printed programs from this vigil with you. Use the Pyramid of Hate on the second page of your program as a resource. Test yourself first. Have you been silent in the face of ethnic jokes? Have you let racial slurs go unchallenged? Are you guilty yourself of one of the steps? Are you ready to use the pyramid to engage in conversation with others? When we do not protest, we are guilty of aiding in the normalization of bigotry and hatred.
“Deborah Lipstadt, scholar and professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University observes that we may never change the minds of people who mail pipe bombs or enter a sanctuary with guns blazing, but we can stop them from influencing others. This year, at Thanksgiving dinner, when your nasty uncle or obnoxious cousin starts sounding off in their annual complaints, ranting about Jews, Blacks, Muslims, and LGBTQ members who are ruining this country, do not sit idly by. Challenge them. Do so, not to change their minds, but to reach others, especially those at the table who could be influenced, those who are listening and watching and learning. Silence is complicity, and an aide to the haters.
“We must consciously fight becoming jaded and hopeless. When we hear so regularly about another shooting, another hate crime, another screaming hurtful, hateful online posting, we risk becoming accustomed to such behaviors, and then we are one step further up the pyramid of hate. We risk losing what we have created in this country, a society that was designed to peacefully, and through debate and rational reasoning, arrive at the means to move forward and to function on behalf of all members.
“We know what is right. It’s why we are here seeking solace in the face of that, which is so wrong. Let us gain strength from this gathering and take it with us to our circles of involvement. To our friends, to our meditation groups, our book clubs, our dormitories, our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, to wherever we interact with those who may listen. We are afraid perhaps, partly because we didn’t know we would live in a time during which we would have to fight to keep love stronger than hate. As people who seek the good in life, we have always fought this battle in favor of love, understanding and kindness. The hatred we battle may be louder now than we remember it, but it can be silenced, it can be overcome.
“We only have to look at each other to know that. We can cry together and be comforted, we can embrace one another and gain strength. We can share in this burden of our times and fight to repair the world. Go in peace, and go with hope, for our desire to curb hatred is strong, our love is powerful; the more we share it, the greater it grows. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazayk; May we all go from strength to strength.”
Although we are in an interesting place in time, it is important to remember that, as Rabbi Jablow remarked, “[t]he hatred we battle may be louder now than we remember it, but it can be silenced, it can be overcome,” The attacks on the synagogue remind us that in order to stop violence like this from occurring, we must understand the root of hate speech and its increased frequency in light of today’s political rhetoric.