Op-Ed: Reflecting on Three Years Since the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

Marking death anniversaries, or a yahrzeit, has a special significance in Judaism. On Wednesday, Oct. 27, we marked the anniversary of the loss of eleven lives in the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:

Joyce Fienberg, 75

Richard Gottfried, 65

Rose Mallinger, 97

Jerry Rabinowitz, 66

Cecil, 59 & David Rosenthal, 54

Bernice, 84 & Sylvan Simon, 86

Daniel Stein, 71

Melvin Wax, 88

Irving Younger, 69

I can still remember with eerie clarity waking up in the morning and rolling over to check my phone per my usual routine, unaware that what I would see when I looked at it would have a lasting effect on me. I saw the news alert that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, yet we did not know who was involved and why. My stomach dropped and my heart contracted, with a striking rapidity that I have felt in few other moments of my life. 

Perhaps I thought of my own temple, which would be having Saturday morning services at that exact moment, a special time and in a special place that was typically marked for me with the celebration of a transition to adulthood, a bar/ bat mitzvah. Perhaps I thought of the safety I had once felt in that holy place, now gone forever with a rain of bullets that I did not see but could now only hope I would not know. Perhaps I thought that if the two places I spent most of my time outside of my home, school and synagogue, were so dangerous, where did they expect us to find peace or comfort? Honestly, I do not remember what I thought, just the visceral physical response of reality coming crashing down upon me, a transition to adulthood in its own right.

Over the coming hours and days, the motivations of the shooter became clear. Though said by few, it was an act of terrorism. This was not merely a deranged man, but one with a political agenda. In screaming “All Jews must die!”, he was not just talking about the elderly people and Holocaust survivors he shot in Pittsburgh. He believed, radicalized by far-right internet and media, that a global network of Jews controlled the government and, importantly for him, was helping caravans of immigrants into the country. In his posts on the right-wing social media site Gab.com, the shooter focused on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society who he saw as aiding “hostile invaders.” In addition, posts claimed those of European descent as the “chosen people” and Jews and those of other races needed to be enslaved or exterminated.

It is impossible to say that he was a single man driven to murder by his delusions. At the time, Network Contagion Research Institute released a study that found anti-Semitic comments on far-right social media had doubled since mid-2016. There existed then and exists now a far-reaching network, through the internet, television, and radio, of anti-Semitic rhetoric that leads some to violence.

Living in NYC and its metropolitan area, this deadly reality would come to a crux for me winter of my freshman year of college, one year after the attack. Things had changed at home quite quickly; always needing to be buzzed into the synagogue, now an armed guard stood by the door. More guns, it seems, we thought would be the answer. Coming to Fordham, I worked at Temple Emanu-El, one of the biggest and most majestic Jewish buildings in the world. It was constantly on my mind, though, that this fact made us a target. When I joined members of Fordham’s Jewish Student Organization there for a service on the one year anniversary of the shooting, I pointed out to them the safety measures in place: the uniformed police presence, the metal detectors, the stone slabs on the sidewalk that looked beautiful and decorative but served the practical purpose of blocking a vehicle from ramming into the building or people gathered outside of it. 

This was, and is, our reality. A historic sense of terror has long been key to the Jewish experience, but America was thought to be different. If, in the most Jewish city in the world outside of Israel, members of our group felt unsafe discussing the service we had just left on the subway, how are we supposed to grapple with American pluralism and religious freedom? That winter, it would only get worse, with anti-Semitic attacks around the city and a machete attack in the suburbs during Hanukkah. For the first time in my life I felt I needed to hide this portion of my identity in public. These events are what prompted me to sign up for the Fordham Political Review and led me to write my first article: The Normalization of Anti-Semitism. Now, almost two years since then and three years since the Tree of Life shooting, much has happened but little has changed for the better.

Jewish people are one of the many components that make up the American people. The diversity of the American people, one of our greatest strengths, includes religion as much as race. It is this foundation of religious freedom, from which our country grew; Puritans and Catholics founded colonies as a means to escape religious persecution and The Bill of Rights ensured we would not have state-sponsored religion. Why then, in this country where we no longer have to fear pogroms, does violence and discrimination still permeate? Why was the lynching of a falsely accused Jewish man in Georgia in 1915 never prosecuted,  just as the lynchings of numerous Black people across the nation were not? Why are political campaigns happening at this very moment marked by anti-Semitic and racialized language?

America failed the eleven people that were gunned down on her soil three years ago this week. Her ideas were not strong enough in the face of a vast echo chamber of hate that moved a man to murder in defense of his America against the perceived threat of diverse groups, both religious and racial. This speaks not to flaws of the founding ideals, but rather that they are an aspiration we have yet to achieve. The fulfillment of these values of freedom from persecution can only be accomplished through our actions. As we have seen, the actions of those who seek harm speak loudly, but if we stand together in unity our actions will speak louder. The community came together to commemorate the anniversary in an outpouring of support that, if nothing else, speaks this truth boldly to the nation and the world.