Three years marked since deadliest antisemitic attack in American history

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A person stands in front of Stars of David that are displayed in front of the Tree of Life Synagogue where a massacre took place in 2018. (AP/Matt Rourke)

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Three years after a white supremacist killed 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and injured seven, the congregation held a memorial ceremony in a local park while President Biden took a strong stance against antisemitism and Jewish leaders pledged action to protect their communities.

Tweeting a picture of a memorial (“Yizkor”) candle with the names of the mostly elderly victims, in its invitation to the ceremony, the synagogue wrote, “Each person left an indelible mark on our community. It is our prayer that their memory be a blessing on this day and all of the days to come.”

The rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, who had been in the synagogue and pulled some congregants to safety during the shooting, told the Times of Israel that those who died were “the really engaged, active, involved people,” who came to synagogue “because of great devotion…a love of being Jewish.” He had never thought “that houses of worship of any faith would be attacked,” but said that hatred of against all kinds of minorities was on the rise, which “speaks to a serious illness in humanity.” He was, however, heartened by the non-Jewish community’s empathetic response and support after the attack, which is “still there to this day.”

Many synagogues became more security-conscious as a result of this attack, hiring guards, locking doors, and maintaining closer relations with local police forces.

Just this month, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) began a three-year, $54 million campaign to expand its comprehensive community security initiative to all its 146 communities. Only 45 so far have LiveSecure, which JFNA calls “a single point of contact for critical incident coordination, information and intelligence sharing, safety and security training, and resources for every Jewish institution in a community.”

The fact is that antisemitism is a rising challenge in the United States. The FBI’s hate-crime statistics published in August showed that in 2020 Jews were the most-targeted religious group in the country. Fully 57% of all such crimes were committed against Jews even though they comprise perhaps two percent of the population.

Just this week, an American Jewish Committee poll also revealed that 24% of Jews reported being attacked either online or in person in the past year, although only three percent said they had been physically assaulted. A whopping 90% feel that antisemitism is a problem in the U.S.

President Joe Biden sent a strong message against hate on the anniversary Wednesday.

“We must always stand up and speak out against antisemitism with clarity and conviction, and rally against the forces of hate in all its forms, because silence is complicity,” he said in a statement. “We must recognize in others our shared humanity…. As we mark three years since this heinous attack, we resolve to remember the lives lost and commit to protecting a future worthy of their memories.”

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, 46-year-old Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha building in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood during the prayer services of three congregations housed there. He opened fire with both a semi-automatic rifle and semi-automatic pistols to kill and injure congregants in the entrance to the building, the main hall and in the basement. Within ten minutes the police arrived and a shootout began, in which five officers were wounded, one critically, and Bowers himself was hit three times before being captured.

The trial is still ongoing. He is facing 63 charges in all, including federal hate crimes violations, obstruction of religious belief and firearms offenses and could get the death penalty for his actions.

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