The Deadliest Attack on Jews in US History

Last Shabbat at our synagogue we celebrated a number of milestones.  In shule there were families celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary, a 93rd and 94th birthday and several other birthdays.  For each of these Mosaic Law members we recited a blessing on their behalf and sang “Siman Tov u’ Mazel Tov.” The lyrics and music of this folk song originated between 1886 and 1890 in Poland or Rumania. The song consists of two phrases: “Siman Tov” means “good sign” and “Mazel Tov” literally means “good luck.”

2486 miles away at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there was no singing of “Siman Tov u’ Mazel Tov.” There was no “good sign” and no “good luck” as a 46-year-old man with an automatic rifle and several handguns entered the synagogue and murdered 11 Jewish adults and wounded six others.  The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has called this the deadliest attack of Jews in the history of the United States. (https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-statement-on-synagogue-shooting-in-pittsburgh)

The theory of six degrees of separation contends that, because we are all linked by chains of acquaintance, we are just six degrees away from any other person on the planet.  And that holds true for many who live in our community of Sacramento.  MLC members Michael and Lorraine Opper texted me that their son Stephen and his fiancé Hannah just moved to Pittsburgh a few days ago from New York. Hannah’s family lives in Squirrel Hill and just returned from a visit to Israel the day before.  Hannah’s family was on lockdown but thank God, they are safe.  Our cantor, Ben Rosner, who spent several years at another congregation in Pittsburgh before coming to Sacramento, is acquainted with a number of congregants and clergy from Tree of Life.  And Judy Weiner, one of our MLC members, shared with me that her nephew Kevin, who has special needs, lives in a wonderful Jewish group home that is located right next door to the Tree of Life Synagogue.  They hid in the basement during the gunfire.  Kevin is safe and most likely unaffected by the events that took place.  She told me “How sad that basements now have a new purpose in this country.”

And the Sacramento connection to Pittsburgh goes even further.  Soni Meyer, who attends our synagogue every Shabbat with her husband Ron, shared with me that her brother, Michael Smith, is the owner and director of Shalom Memorial Chapel in Cranston, Rhode Island., one of only two Jewish funeral homes in R.I., and the only family-owned one. When the tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh last week-end, Soni’s brother called the Jewish funeral home in Pittsburgh, and offered his help. The funeral home in Pittsburgh told him that they were overwhelmed and could certainly use his assistance. He has been in Pittsburgh for four days, and is helping the families of the deceased with their needs at this difficult and sorrowful time.

This tragic event at the synagogue in Pittsburgh has brought messages of sympathy, love and support to the Pittsburgh Jewish community from all over the world.  Here in Sacramento when Shabbat ended, I opened my email to find messages from religious and civic leaders.  Here is an excerpt of their words:

From Justice George Nicholson:

“My heart hurts for Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life and its congregants.  God bless you and yours. Just be careful. See you on November 8 for the Kristallnacht memorial service.”  Your friend, George Nicholson

From Interfaith Council of Sacramento Past President Jon Fish:

“I am soooo sorry mankind lives and acts like this.  My prayers and thoughts are with the Jewish people of the earth.  I consider you my dear friends and brothers and sisters. This is sad, distressing and ugly.  My love and warmest regards to you!!”  Jon

 From Father Michael Kiernan:

My Dear Reuven, I am devastated to see the terrible events and loss of life today in the synagogue. How much can our dear Jewish people bear? May God console you and all in this terrible time. With prayers and love!  Michael.

From Reverend Alan Jones:

The community of St. Mark’s Church simply want to let you know that our love and prayers are surrounding you and all our sisters and brothers of the Jewish community, here in Sacramento and across the nation.  We will redouble our efforts to stand firm against the voices of bigotry and violence and especially those who speak hate against our Jewish siblings. I will be calling on all our members to make their own personal plans to educate their families, co-workers and neighbors about the precious value of Jewish faith and Jewish people for those of us who claim the name of Christian. Hate and violence aimed at the Jewish community is anathema to us all.  I thank God for each of you and the prophetic presence of your ministries and communities in the Sacramento area. Your brother, Alan

From Waseem Bawa, A business leader in San Francisco:

Dear Friends,

I want to express how horrified I was to hear of the attack in Pittsburgh. Please know that I and others in the Muslim community stand shoulder to shoulder during this difficult time for the entire Jewish community – our hearts and prayers are with all our Jewish brothers and sisters.  You may have already seen the statement released by SALAM. I also serve on the board of COSVIO, the umbrella organization representing over 20 mosques and Islamic organizations and we will be releasing a joint statement of support shortly. In the meantime if there’s anything we can do, please let me know. L’Shalom, Waseem

The consoling words of these leaders of our greater Sacramento community and beyond, are so important for our healing and I am personally grateful to them for standing with us.  Two days after the horrific event in Pittsburgh when I was meeting with a Bat Mitzvah Family, there was a knock on my office door.  It was Reverend Pamela Anderson, a Presbyterian Minister.  She had a gift for me.  It was a bouquet of 11 beautiful white roses.  Her kind, compassionate gesture brought tears to our eyes.

On Monday, October 29th at Congregation B’nai Israel at 7:00 PM, the entire interfaith community of Sacramento gathered together in solidarity for a Memorial Service to pay tribute to the victims of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.  B’nai Israel was one of three Sacramento synagogues which was firebombed by two white supremacists in June of 1999, causing millions of dollars in damage and destroying a smaller Orthodox synagogue.  Our mayor, two members of Congress, a state senator and the Chief of Police all spoke, honoring the victims and standing against anti-Semitism and hate.  More than 100 non-Jewish clergy from all religious faiths were in attendance.  All who attended were moved by the words, the prayers and were comforted just being together.

Before I chanted the El Malay Rachamim (Memorial Prayer) invoking the names of all 11 precious souls, I told the 1500 people gathered in the sanctuary that the last time I recited this memorial prayer for victims of violence, it was three years ago in October when my wife and I visited our son Ari who lives in Charleston, South Carolina.  On the Sunday of our visit I went to the worship service at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church which just four months earlier suffered a similar attack and nine African Americans who gathered together for Bible Study, were murdered. After the service the minister escorted me downstairs to the social hall where the murders took place.  We stood with a group of church members as I chanted in Hebrew and in English the traditional El Malay Rachamim Memorial Prayer, invoking the names of the 9 people killed, their names engraved on a large standing crucifix (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-QQ4EUqeOs). On Monday night at Congregation B’nai Israel here in Sacramento I expressed the hope that this would be the last time I ever have to recite this memorial prayer for victims of violence and hate. (http://www.capradio.org/articles/2018/10/30/sacramento-interfaith-community-gathers-after-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-vows-to-stand-against-violence/?fbclid=IwAR0EhbEf0o-ITzRxkwiP3BOS2gSDQNuLZAsc4-gM2BewFBiyuPO5ZZRtxYo).

When my grandparents came to Ellis Island escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they came to a country that welcomed them with open arms.  I imagine them turning over in their graves wondering how the greatest country in the world could give birth to such heinous acts which have occurred too often in churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, movie theaters, concerts and other public venues.

Our synagogue and our entire Jewish community will continue to review all of the security measures to keep us safe.  But we will never truly be safe and secure until we as a nation have the serious conversation with our government, civic and religious leaders, and come together to act decisively to find solutions for ending gun violence and hatred.  The fact that anti-Semitic incidents have increased 57% since 2017 should be a red flag to all Americans (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/27/us/anti-semitism-adl-report.html).  Jewish People have always been the ‘canary in the coal mine.’   If the United States is not safe for Jews, then the very future of America – and indeed the civilized world – is in real danger.  We all must work harder to teach and model the acceptance and honoring of every single person regardless of his or her color, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.  If we can come together to accomplish that lofty goal, then the vigils and community gatherings of solidarity after such tragic events will be fewer as we strive to make our society a more compassionate and accepting one.  Let’s not wait for the next tragic event to begin that conversation.  Our children’s future and the future of our country depends on it.

About the Author
Reuven Taff has served as the rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California since 1995. A trained Hazzan and Educator, he served as Cantor and Educational Director of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, Arizona and Headmaster of Gesher Jewish Day School of Northern Virginia. He can be contacted at rabbi@mosaiclaw.org.
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