Pittsburgh’s Jews shaken by deadly shooting spree
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Pittsburgh’s Jews shaken by deadly shooting spree

NEW YORK, May 2 (JTA) — Some Jewish facilities in Pittsburgh are under increased security following last week’s shooting rampage that killed five minorities, including one Jewish woman.

Police are adding patrols and keeping marked police cars parked near some Pittsburgh Jewish institutions.

“We live in an era of random risk, and I’m watching Jewish institutions take increased precautions,” said Brian Schreiber, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“But we don’t want this to become Ft. Knox,” said Schreiber, who added that he supports the security measures.

On Monday, police were patrolling the parking lot of Congregation Beth El of South Hills, which was one of two synagogues shot at during the rampage. Windows were boarded, and the anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted there during the rampage was covered, according to a synagogue employee.

The tragedy is spurring calls for increased gun safety laws and passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which has been stalled in Congress.

President Clinton called for national legislation against hate crimes in an address Sunday at a fund raiser for the NAACP in Detroit.

The incident, Clinton said, shows, “There are still people in the country who are shot, who are abused, who are killed because of their race, their religion, just because they’re gay.”

He added, “It is simply not true that we do not need national legislation. We do. It is who we are. It is who we stand for.”

Some congressional Republicans oppose the bill in part because they don’t want to create special classes of victims.

The rampage was the second apparently racially motivated crime in the Pittsburgh area in the past two months.

In March, a black man allegedly killed three whites in the working- class suburb of Wilkinsburg.

“These incidents are becoming less shocking, and that’s shocking in and of itself,” said Schreiber.

Last Friday, Richard Scott Baumhammers, 34, allegedly began his spree by killing Anita Gordon, a Jewish woman who was one of his next door neighbors and a family friend.

Gordon, a 63-year-old native of Pittsburgh who was the married mother of three daughters, held a bachelor’s degree in interior design.

She was known for her work as a volunteer at Beth El and once designed the cover of the synagogue directory.

“Many members talked of her as if she were a second mother,” said Beth El’s rabbi, Neal Scheindlin.

A standing-room-only funeral for Gordon, who had known Baumhammers since he was a young boy, was held Monday.

The other four people killed last Friday were also minorities: an Indian man, Anil Thakur, was killed at a grocery; two Asian men, Thao Pham and Ji- Ye Sun, at a Chinese restaurant; and an African American man, Garry Lee, was shot and killed at a karate school.

Another Indian man shot in the rampage, Sandip Patel, remained in critical condition Sunday in a Pittsburgh hospital.

Baumhammers also allegedly shot through the windows of the two suburban Pittsburgh synagogues — Ahavath Achim was the other one — and spray-painted the anti-Semitic graffiti outside Beth El.

No one was hurt in the synagogue incidents.

Pennsylvania prosecutors charged Baumhammers with five counts of homicide. Baumhammers, who pleaded not guilty to the charges Monday, was also charged with seven counts of ethnic intimidation under Pennsylvania’s hate crimes law.

Baumhammers’ lawyer has indicated he plans to mount an insanity defense.

Baumhammers, who lived with his parents in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon, is a lawyer who studied immigration law.

In a search of his house, police found what has been described as a manifesto of his Free Market Party, which advocates the rights of European Americans and denounces immigration from the Third World.

The ideology Baumhammers apparently espoused in his manifesto is linked to a philosophy known as The Third Position, an ideology of revolution and racial separation that is attracting right-wing and left-wing extremists.

Baumhammers also created a Web site for the party he founded with links to other “white-rights groups.” The site has since been closed down.

Baumhammers, who is of Latvian descent, apparently became more interested in his heritage during the past few years. He made several trips to Europe.

During this time, Baumhammers became convinced that he had been poisoned, according to a woman who told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she had been hospitalized with him. He has reportedly been treated since 1993 for an unspecified mental disorder — and has spent at least one stint in a psychiatric hospital.

A friend of Baumhammers said he suffered from paranoid delusions.

“The sad thing is that he could have gotten some counseling or some help, he could have dealt with some of these minor issues before they turned into all of this,” said George Naruns.

Baumhammer’s lawyer, William Difenderfer, said he would pursue a mental infirmity defense for his client.

The combination of an apparently deranged individual who had easy access to a racist, anti-Semitic ideology is an “explosive mix,” said Joel Ratner, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Ohio/Kentucky/Allegheny.

“Gun safety laws are crucial,” he said, adding that the ADL is also pressing for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The American Jewish Committee, which also denounced the shootings, reiterated its call for congressional hearings into far-right groups.

Hate crimes were down by 4 percent in the United States last year, to 1,547 incidents, according to a recent report published by the Anti-Defamation League. But they were up, from 70 to 82, in Pennsylvania.

“Hate has been rearing its head in western Pennsylvania all too frequently, he said. Acts like these are “not something that comes out of the blue.”

But for Scheindlin, who was the Jewish victim’s rabbi, last Friday’s events certainly felt that way.

He is taking some solace in the support his suburban congregation has received from residents of the area — Jews and non-Jews.

Close to 300 people attended Friday night services — and about 400 on Saturday morning. The attendees at the service expressed a mixture of fear and anger, he said.

“I could feel the emotion coming toward me,” he said.

Religious leaders in the Pittsburgh area focused their sermons Sunday on the tragedy.

Scheindlin, who has received widespread support from other religious leaders, is also working on several interfaith efforts, including a healing service and a vigil at the Chinese restaurant where two of the victims were killed.

“The thing that I’ve been stressing is the way that we care for each other as a community and draw strength from each other,” he said.

“This is how God acts in this world — through acts of chesed, of lovingkindness, that people can offer to each other.”