Why The Pittsburgh Shooting Stirred A Communal Spirit That Was Long Dormant


During the Dreyfus trial, Sholem Aleichem used to say, “When it rains in Paris, Jews open umbrellas in Odessa.” Jews used to be family, distance didn’t matter. We weren’t like other folk who might casually remark that they had Greek, Filipino and Italian roots, say, which often means their lineage was more curiosity than compulsion. We were not just a religion, we were blood. A thousand miles from Paris, Jews thought of Dreyfus as family.

Over the last 125 years, if something bad happened to Jews somewhere, it was felt everywhere, expressed in vigils, gatherings, rallies, demonstrations. In 1913, a blood libel in Kiev had Chicago Jews filling the Grand Opera House in solidarity. In 1933, with Hitler only days in power, Bronx Jews filled an armory in solidarity with Jewish Berliners. In 1952, when Jewish poets were murdered in Moscow, Jews gathered in Manhattan. In 1965, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry began taking to the New York streets on behalf of Jews in the Gulag. After 11 Pittsburgh Jews were murdered in shul, Jews from the Atlantic to the Pacific came together to mourn. That’s what Jews do.

But it’s not what Jews always did in recent years. If Pittsburgh’s massacre was the greatest crime of its kind in American history, the 1991 Crown Heights “pogrom,” as many called it, was surely the greatest sustained anti-Semitic terror in American history. Other than Rabbi Avi Weiss leading a small group of protestors to Crown Heights after the worst was over, there were no vigils, no rallies, no ecumenical solidarity marches on Kingston Avenue.

In 2011, in the Israeli village of Itamar, five members of the Fogel family, parents and children, were stabbed to death at home on a Shabbat evening. There was only one American memorial but almost everyone in the room was an employee of a Jewish organization.

In 2017, a Palestinian entered the home of the Salomons, in the Israeli village of Halamish, on a Friday night. The family was expecting neighbors to drop in for a Shalom Zachor, welcoming a new baby to his first Shabbat. The Palestinian, who said he was attracted by the light and the laughter, stabbed four of the Salomons, including the grandfather, while five children were screaming, awaiting the worst. Like Pittsburgh, the murderer brought death into a Shabbat baby ceremony. Like Pittsburgh, a Sabbath turned satanic. Unlike Pittsburgh, there were no vigils or gatherings, only some fundraisers.

When it rains in Paris, Jews open umbrellas in Odessa.

The New York Times recently reported that in 2018 “anti-Semitic incidents have constituted half of all hate crimes in New York,” four times as many hate crimes against Jews as against blacks. There have been no rallies or vigils, nothing Jewish akin to Black Lives Matter.

After the non-reaction to the Salomon massacre, a high-ranking official of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council told us, “The era of big rallies may be over.” Then came Pittsburgh. That same JCRC official, who asked not to be named so that he could speak freely, attended two large Pittsburgh memorials in New York. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, whose Central Synagogue was the site of interdenominational memorials, told us, “There was an incredibly deep need to come together. People just wanted to be with other people, to feel some comfort and solidarity.”

However, the JCRC official pointed out, “It is getting harder to attract people to rallies,” and not every tragedy inspires a turn-out. “We haven’t had any vigils around here for the [bar massacre] in Thousand Oaks or the mass killing in Las Vegas. Pittsburgh was unique, touching a chord among Jew and non-Jews. This was an invasion of a house of worship.”

Pittsburgh was unique, touching a chord among Jew and non-Jews. This was an invasion of a house of worship.

Jews are “family,” but what if our “family” is not in Pittsburgh but overseas? Would Jews ever again rally in an American city for a Jew arrested in Kiev, or see distant storms as heading their way? Today, writes David Harris, CEO of the Jewish advocacy group AJC, “Deadly attacks against Jewish targets had already occurred in other countries, from Belgium to Bulgaria, Argentina to Panama, Turkey to Tunisia, and France to Denmark — not to mention Israel. Yet American Jews … lived with a kind of innocence: surely nothing on the scale of Pittsburgh was conceivable here.”

Community turnout builds when there is a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I,” said the JCRC official. Most American Jews can imagine themselves in Pittsburgh, not in Sderot or a settlement. And perhaps it’s only human nature to identify most strongly to an attack when someone like you is the victim. In this case, many American Jews, even those who don’t affiliate with or attend a synagogue, were shaken by the Pittsburgh tragedy. “They wanted to be in synagogue on that solidarity Shabbat, or at a vigil,” the JCRC official said. “But that may be where it ends.”

Palestinian attacks on Jews in, say, Tel Aviv evoke more reaction than those on Jews in the West Bank communities. And no doubt one’s politics impacts on one’s reaction. After Avi Fuld’s murder, Daniel Solomon (no connection to the murdered family), a former editor for The Forward, sent out a tweet, reported by Tablet, about settlers who are murdered: “I think it shows a kind of charmed, modern naivete that people who occupy the lands of others expect to walk around unmolested. … Hard to feel much sympathy when this happens to settlers. Sorry.” He later posted that he “shouldn’t have used this sad event as occasion to make a political argument,” but he was hardly the only one who turned Jewish deaths into politics. Like Fuld, the Salomons and the Fogels also lived on the West Bank and sympathy for them was surely diluted by that, too.

At an Ansche Chesed vigil for Pittsburgh, some Orthodox Jews, waiting to get in, wondered if they were perceived as far outside the communal embrace as were settlers. One asked, “If 11 Satmar Jews were murdered in Borough Park, would there be community-wide vigils?” Ginia Bellafante recently reported in The Times that hate crimes against the Orthodox, the most frequent victims of anti-Semitism in New York, go by without mainstream acknowledgment. “When a Hasidic man or woman is attacked by anyone in New York City,” Bellafante writes, “mainstream progressive advocacy groups do not typically send out emails calling for concern and fellowship and candlelight vigils in Union Square, as they often do when individuals are harmed in New York because of their race or ethnicity [or sexuality]. Sympathies are distributed unevenly. Few are extended toward religious fundamentalists, of any kind.”

Nevertheless, as the JCRC official said, “I would like to think our community would stand up against anti-Semitism of any kind.”