The 11 victims of the “Tree of Life” synagogue shooting (Photo courtesy of CNN).
On October 27th, Robert Bowers, an armed gunman opened fire on Pittsburgh’s “Tree of Life” synagogue. He proceeded to kill 11 Jewish worshipers and injure six other individuals, four of whom were police officers. Those who perished include Bernice and Sylvan Simon, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Jerry Rabinowitz, Rose Mallinger, Melvin Wax, Joyce Fienberg, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, and Dr. Richard Gottfried. Prior to the shooting, the gunman was well-known on the social media platform, “Gab,” for his extreme anti-Semitic comments. The Washington Post reported that on his final social media post, Bowers denounced the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS, an organization which protects refugees that were persecuted for their religious or racial backgrounds. He stated: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” Bowers currently faces 44 federal counts, many of which are hate crimes. His shooting marks the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in history.
This incident has lasting effects on many throughout the country, including those that were close to the victims. CNN and local news stations such as Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 held tributes remembering those who passed for their admirable qualities. Bernice and Sylvan Simor are remembered for their wholesome 60-year relationship. Jerry Rabinowitz was an esteemed primary care physician known for showing tremendous amounts of compassion towards his patients with HIV; he was last seen running towards the shooting in hopes of saving victims. Cecil and David Rosenthal were inseparable brothers that spent their Saturdays at the “Tree of Life.” Rose Mallinger was a 97-year-old mother of three, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of one. 87-year-old Melvin Wax was described as having a humorous personality. Irving Younger was the son of two Holocaust survivors; he loved the baseball team “The Pirates.” Joyce Fienberg was a retired research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Richard Gottfried opened a dental program with his wife, Peg Durachko; he was an avid supporter of interfaith marriages like his own. Daniel Stein was 71, his family described him as a fun but simple man.
Many Ramapo students and staff have felt the impact of this hate crime. “Personally, I was numb for a few days,” Ms. Schwarz, a Ramapo teacher explained. “We have this ever-increasing amount of violence in the news and I often have to remind myself to feel something. But, when it’s your own community, you don’t have to force. You feel it right away. These people killed in the synagogue could have been my own family members. The person who was retired, who got there early to set up, who was standing at the door to greet people: that could have been my father. That could have been my brother. I don’t have to live in Pittsburgh to feel like it was my own community.”
In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League reported that there was a 60% surge of anti-Semitic incidents compared to those of the previous year. A mural made at Duke University to honor the “Tree of Life” victims was recently defaced with swastikas and derogatory epithets. On November 16th, a man in Baltimore yelled “Heil Hitler” during a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, a musical about upholding Jewish tradition and customs. Studies show that younger Americans are less informed about the Holocaust compared to their older counterparts. A survey by the Claims Conference indicates that about 70 percent of Americans believe that fewer people care about the Holocaust compared to previous years, and 41 percent of millennials believe that only two million Jews died during the Holocaust (in actuality, six million Jews were persecuted and murdered as a part of Nazi Germany’s mass genocide). The Southern Poverty Law Center stated that hate groups in America are growing at precarious rates; the organization was able to name 121 official white supremacist groups. “It’s like watching a train with no brakes from an ever-increasing speed,” Ms. Schwarz explained. “Both grandparents on my father’s side were Holocaust survivors. I can recognize hateful rhetoric for what it is. I know the dangers of rhetoric and I know the danger of silence. Is this just history cycling through itself again?”
Following the shooting, thousands of people with differing faiths and racial backgrounds gathered to mourn the death of the victims. Ms. Schwarz was one of the many that showed her respect to those killed: “I went to a vigil the next night. There were so many thousands of people that showed up to this particular vigil, that it wrapped around two square city blocks. It was equally somber and oddly uplifting.”
The shooting created a conversation about anti-Semitism in America, leading many to realize that it is much more prevalent than expected. Teachers, such as Ms. Schwarz, work to ensure that their students understand the dangers of hateful speech, and how it can lead to tragedies such as the “Tree of Life” shooting. “As a teacher, on a personal level, part of the struggle is to figure out what my moral responsibility is. At what point do I have to speak up? At what point do I have to explain why a certain thinking is dangerous or wrong? I think addressing hateful political rhetoric is one of those things that is at the forefront of my mind often as a teacher, and this particular shooting, made me tackle that moral issue yet again.”
By: Tara Lamorgese ’19, Staff Writer
Featured Photo: Mourners waiting to enter a vigil on October 28th on West 100th and West End Avenue in New York City (Photo courtesy of Ms. Schwarz).