2018-11-08 / Around Town

A Week of Hate, A Week of Hope

By P. Udoma

More than a week has passed since the murder of Jews as they prayed and celebrated at weekly Shabbos (Sabbath) services at Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Anti-Defamation League reports that it was the deadliest attack on Jews on American soil in the country’s history.

On Feb. 27, the organization reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase since they started tracking incident data in the 1970s.

Why is this happening now, this increase in anti-Semitism? Newport This Week met with Rabbi Marc Mandel, of Congregation Jeshuat Israel at Touro Synagogue in Newport, the oldest synagogue in the country, to ask this question and others.

“I think human life is not valued as much as it was,” he said. “Generally, we’ve become more violent as a society, but particularly in the United States. There’s definitely more rhetoric out there, targeting immigrants, targeting minorities, targeting Jews, too.”

As the week went on, we found out more about what happened in Pittsburgh.

There were 11 dead and six injured, some of whom were police officers. The victims were mostly elderly. Two brothers were killed, both in their 50s and both of special needs. They were known for greeting everyone sweetly at the doors for services each week, handing out programs and making everyone feel welcome.

A 97-year-old woman was in that room with the rest of the victims. Her life ended as did the others, in prayer. And in another room, a bris was in progress, the sacred ceremony and naming of boy babies at eight days old. The celebration of a new life joining the community.

“There is a such a huge divide in our country right now,” said Laura Freedman Pedrick, board member and past president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel at Touro and development director at Aquidneck Land Trust. “I feel that the senior administration is enabling bad behavior. And it makes me very sad.”

“The atmosphere is full of tension,” Mandel said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about the fact that the president has been stoking fears… Actions have consequences. Words have consequences. Especially when you’re the president.”

Yet, concurrent with the rise of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes in the country is an increase in cohesion among different faiths and cultural communities, evidenced in the Pittsburgh Muslim community’s immediate show of support to the Tree of Life congregants and the victims’ families. By Oct. 29, two Muslim organizations in the synagogue’s area had raised nearly $200,000 to help them.

The Islamic Center of the City of Pittsburgh issued a statement on the homepage of its website, almost immediately.

“The Pittsburgh Muslim Community extends our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims, their families, and all of our Jewish brothers and sisters,” reads the opening of the statement. “What happens to one of us, is felt by us all.”

It goes on to offer a link to a crowdfunding page where people can donate to the shooting victims’ families.

Religion News Service reports that on Nov. 2, at the end of prayers at the Islamic center, its leaders requested that the congregants attend Friday night services at a synagogue near them.

The cohesion is local, too.

“At Touro, we received a beautiful bouquet of flowers from Trinity Church, just saying, ‘We’re here for you and we’re here with you,’” Mandel said. “We also received a letter of support from Channing Church and an email of support from Newport Historical Society, and other organizations that sent their blessings, saying, ‘This is terrible. What can we do?’”

“A change in leadership,” Pedrick said, is what is needed in order to reverse the rising expressions of hate. “I think we have to keep having conversations. I think we have to keep talking. I think we have to be kind and make sure those messages are getting out there, not just the bad messages.”

“The healing process has already begun,” says Mandel. “People of all faiths are sitting together at vigils and praying together, talking about living together… it’s a huge step to demonstrate to ourselves and our elected officials that we want to heal, want to live in a society that doesn’t discriminate… This is not our way.”

Newport and Middletown law enforcement have begun to meet with leaders of worship communities to address questions and concerns about safety.

“We have advised religious leaders on security and responses to active threats,” said Middletown Police Chief Anthony Pesare. “In light of the tragedy in Pittsburgh, we met with people to hear their concerns and offer the department’s resources to ensure their safety.”

“I think we have to get the message out that this is not acceptable,” Pedrick said. “I think we have to speak up. We can’t sit back. I personally have to get more vocal. No one is going to do it for me.”

On Nov. 1, Temple Shalom of Middletown held a “Service for Peace,” in memory of the victims in Pittsburgh and the two African Americans killed in Kentucky that same week by a shooter who had tried to enter a predominantly black church but was prevented from doing so by locked doors.

The event was organized by the synagogue’s new vice president, Abigail Anthony, who works for the Rhode Island Utilities Commission and is the mother of two boys, 3 and 5. People of various faiths and cultures attended the service, including a contingent from the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It blew us all away. I thought I would feel happy if we filled the congregation hall, which seats 50,” said Anthony. “But we probably had 150 people there. We ran out of programs. The copier couldn't keep up. It was amazing to see the support, just the number of people who came."

The service, which, she said, was created to allow people to grieve together, was evidence that people from different communities and faiths “had a clear desire to be together and do something…. We are one community.” “In the face of hatred, you need to respond…”

“Hopefully we can heal as a nation,” said Mandel. “George Washington was here in Newport and talked to the very, very early Jews who were here and told them that there is no sanction for bigotry, no sanction for intolerance, and not only that, he promised people that they would be able to live in comfort and with a lack of fear. We have to heal as a nation to remind people of the principles [we] stand for, a country where people of all faiths can live together in freedom and with a lack of fear. Any type of discrimination and intolerance is against what [we] stand for.”

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