Our response to the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting is love

The attacker wanted us to be intimidated but we will continue celebrating our Jewish identity, writes Marie van der Zyl

October 31, 2018 11:56

Last Shabbat, 11 Americans attended a Shabbat service at their local shul in a leafy suburb of Pittsburgh. While they were surrounded by their fellow congregants in the Tree of Life Synagogue, they were murdered by a man who was reported to have shouted “all these Jews need to die” as he unloaded his assault rifle against terrified worshippers.

Like those people, I was at a Shabbat service last Saturday but I had the fortune to be with the Jewish community and students in Oxford rather than in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.

It is horrifying to think that a walk to prayers on Shabbat should cost anyone their lives but there are people who are so consumed with hatred that they will mow down anyone in their path – even a 97-year-old woman – just because of the religion they practise and, it seems, because the Tree of Life community wanted to help immigrants in their city.

I don’t think anyone wants to imagine the final agonising moments of the victims of Robert Bowers’ evil murder spree. Nor can we truly appreciate the devastation of their families and loved ones who now have to deal with the sudden and violent death of those who were closest to them. There is, however, one person who does appreciate the torment more than most.

Jessica Weinberg-Neiss was born and brought up in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh and she had her batmitzvah at the Tree of Life Synagogue. On Monday night, she told Sadiq Khan, Sajid Javid, the Chief Rabbi and everyone who had assembled to pay their respects at our vigil for the victims at JW3: “This man has violated my home. He has ripped open and defiled my sacred space and it will never be the same again.”

We have to face the painful fact that violent antisemitism did not die in the ashes of the Holocaust. Attacks in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen and now Pittsburgh demonstrate beyond any doubt that there are people whose hatred for Jews is venomous enough to make them kill indiscriminately.

Our response? Firstly, my job as Board of Deputies President is to ensure that Government, police and other authorities are aware of the threat to our community and are giving us the protection we need, as well as the means to protect ourselves. I am glad to say that our relationships in this area are productive and the fact that the Mayor of London, Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner cleared their diaries to attend our vigil, gives us confidence that our safety is important to them. We also need to confront and fight antisemitism wherever and whenever it appears.

More than ever we should thank the CST, and all those who work and volunteer to help ensure we remain safe. We are indebted to all of those who volunteer in the service of our community and its security.

But perhaps the most important lesson we can take from this tragedy is that we need to continue doing what we do. If we stop going to synagogue; if we stop gathering together as a community in public, then the terrorists have won. We can all Show up for Shabbat this weekend and support a wonderful initiative to show solidarity with the Jews of Pittsburgh. We can support Mitzvah Day, which demonstrates that we all stand for the type of causes that the Pittsburgh mass murderer despised. We can send money to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – the charity which congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue supported.

The attacker wanted us to shrink away from society, to be intimidated and frightened into submission. But we will continue going to synagogue, coming together to help people in need, celebrating our Jewish identity.

Ultimately our response is love. Love for our Jewish community, love for our neighbours and love for one another regardless of background.

Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies

October 31, 2018 11:56

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