Skip to site content

How Do We Respond to the Pittsburgh Tragedy?

We are all recoiling in shock and horror at the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

This occurred in a congregation whose very name has the word “life” in it. The attack occurred on the Jewish Sabbath, which Jewish people call Shabbat.

When Jews greet each other on Shabbat, they greet each other with the words “Shabbat Shalom,” which means “Sabbath peace.”

The callous and brutal murder of 11 Jews at Shabbat services represents an unparalleled act of anti-Semitism against the American Jewish community. That it was perpetrated on the Jewish Sabbath, while these innocent people were praying, makes it all the more horrific.

In 1790, in his letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

The Jewish community of America has always viewed this country as a beacon of liberty and freedom, a safe haven for all those escaping religious persecution.

For many Jews, the events in Pittsburgh constituted a shocking wake-up call. This attack on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) came in the midst of an incitement of fear against immigrants – men, women and children whose only desire is to come to this blessed land.

This fear of an immigrant mob seeking to overtake our country is not well founded and appeals to the basest prejudices of many.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there has been a marked increase in anti-Semitism in the past two years.

Specifically, the number of anti-Semitic events has increased by close to 60 percent. It was slightly more than a year ago when Klansman and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying, “Jews shall not replace us.”

Politicians have begun to demonize wealthy Jewish donors and the “Hollywood elite.” These dog whistle attacks deserve to be called out for what they are, vicious appeals to the worst impulses of anti-Semitism.

When you see attacks on people like George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and others, realize that by pointing out Jewish donors only, the leaders making these attacks are encouraging anti-Semitism.

We must understand that this is not only a Jewish problem. The past few years have seen the ripping open of a vicious underbelly of bias, bigotry, racism, homophobia, sexism and anti-Semitism in our country. The fabric of American society has been severely torn.

What should be our response?

The Jewish community has promised they will not cower in fear. Their response will be to increase Jewish activity.

They will increase their dedication toward Jewish learning, prayer and Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. They will respond with strength, commitment and pride, and they encourage all people to do the same.

Together as a community, let us commit ourselves to fighting the forces of hate.

Psalm 89:3 says, “The world is to be built upon love.” Based upon this, in our congregation we sing a song whose English lyrics are, “I will build this world from love. / And you must build this world from love. / And if we build this world from love. / Then God will build this world from love.”

Let us commit ourselves as a community to building, as the psalmist says, an Olam Chesed, a world of love.

Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel taught, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Let us not be indifferent.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Repairing the fabric of American society is the responsibility of all of us.

Let us realize that the future of this great country, the future of humankind, is in our hands. Let us commit ourselves to building a world of love, justice, compassion and peace.

May this be God’s will, but even more important, may it be our sacred task.

Fred Guttman

Fred Guttman is rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina.