Local Jewish community regroups and reflects following Pittsburgh atrocity

Pittsburgh Synagogue Vigil (1)
A vigil was held on The Green on the Sunday following the anti-Semitic shooting in Pittsburgh.

Senior Reporter

In the wake of the largest attack against the Jewish people on American soil, Jewish students, faculty and community members have been reflecting on how they view themselves as Jews in the world, and to wonder how others feel about them as Jews in the world.

The shooting on Oct. 27 claimed the lives of 11 Jewish people and injured seven, including four police officers who entered the temple to restrain the active shooter. The shooting reignited discussions on gun control, racism and discrimination in the United States regardless of religious affiliation.

Anti-Semitism is not often seen as an ongoing problem. Students and faculty alike claimed that they don’t often feel a sense of discrimination when it comes to their Jewish identity. But after the Pittsburgh attack, there is a sense of fear — a sense of unknowing.

“We know that there’s [anti-Semitism], even if we don’t feel it in our everyday lives. We know that there are these ideas out there,” Polly Zavadivker, the director of the Jewish Studies Program, says. “There is white nationalism, which can be often connected with anti-Semitism and racism and all kinds of other prejudices, and this was the case here, for this man. The murderer was an anti-Semite.”

Zavadivker went on to explain that while these sentiments only rear their head rarely, it is important to recognize what those ideas are, and call them out for what they are: blatant acts of anti-Semitism.

Last year, there were anti-Semitic white nationalist posters found on campus that prompted a quick response from the university. After the attack, as well as the presence of more white nationalist posters on campus this past week, Jewish students and other marginalized communities might be looking for a place to connect and speak about the confusion and sadness they are feeling.

Hillel is a Jewish community organization on campus that partners with students to create events and educational experiences that foster this feeling of togetherness and mutual respect. Donna Schwartz is the executive director of Hillel. She and her colleague, Rabbi Nick Renner, have been hosting students all week after the attack, promoting discussion and a sense of hope in these dark moments for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike.

“From some of my conversations with students already, it’s remarkable that this attack both has valances that connect to the bigger political situation right now and the climate in this country,” Renner says. “Everybody felt like the right thing to do in the face of this tragedy was to come together, was to be together, was to be there for one another.”

The vigil held on The Green on the Sunday following the Pittsburgh shooting brought in members from all parts of the community, standing in solidarity with the Jewish people. Members of the City of Newark, students, families, politicians and leaders of other multifaith groups all came together in solidarity.

“[The vigil] was a very big step for us. We had lots of options as to where to hold this vigil, but it felt really important for it to be here in the public at the university, for students to feel that connectedness of the entire community and the larger global Jewish community,” Schwartz says. “So we were really grateful to have that space for students to just be there, and be with each other, and hear from their rabbi, or another rabbi, or all the politicians about what they’re doing.”

Students are choosing to cope with this event in their own ways. In addition to the university’s vigil, the Jewish Studies Program hosted a coping-through-conversation event on Thursday where students and professors gathered to discuss their feelings. Students also hosted their own Shabbat dinners on Friday night while others tried to delve into their feelings through their studies.

Marissa Snyder is a senior studying early education at the university who lives extremely close to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. She student teaches at McCullough Middle School, and since she knows many people who attend services at Tree of Life, she decided to plan a lesson to teach her young students about the attack in hopes that her personal experience could illustrate the importance of awareness.

“They see the news, but they don’t understand what’s happening,” Snyder says. “I want to share that this happened in my hometown. I know so many people that go to that synagogue, I want to share the personal with them so that they can understand or try to understand that this can happen to people you know.”

While education and togetherness is important and healing in these moments of darkness, there is also an importance in focusing on identity, and what an attack like this means for Jewish students struggling with their Jewish identities on campus.

“I’m sure a lot of students who are Jews are thinking about their own identities as Jews and what that means, and the fact that Jews were targeted,” Zavadivker says. “But I just want people to remember that it’s not a reflection on the Jewish people at all. I hope that Jewish people will walk away feeling still proud and safe and free in their faith and their religion and their everyday actions. And not feel that this controls or determines anything about their life or their identities.”

In a time of such discriminatory rhetoric and speech, horrifying acts of complete and utter hate and fear tactics aimed to scare and intimidate, togetherness and solidarity, in addition to making one’s voice heard through democracy, is what communities can do right now for those grieving.

“All of us who are Jewish, we are all accountable to one another, and we’re responsible for one another in a really profound way in this world,” Renner says. “And that doesn’t just end with the Jewish people. Torah tells us 36 times that you’re responsible for the stranger, for the other in this world, and so this idea that we are obligated to other people and to care for other people in this world strikes me as a really important message for people to hear at a time like this.”

At the Jewish Studies Program’s coping-through-conversation event on Thursday, it was clear that being there for the Jewish community can be about more than just adding a border to your Facebook profile picture. Students can connect by engaging in conversation at Hillel, located on 47 W. Delaware Avenue, or at the Jewish Studies Program building at 30 W. Delaware Avenue.

There have been many strides that the university has taken to broaden inclusiveness and show support for underrepresented groups.

“We are privileged to have a thriving Hillel on campus that works very closely with Student Life and the university broadly to promote the inclusion and well-being of our Jewish students,” Dennis Assanis, the president of the university, stated in an email. “We now have a Director of Student Diversity and Inclusion, and we’re adding other staff to provide events, training and advisement regarding diversity. We’re also launching the Student Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board to engage with students around these issues.”

For all groups that have been attacked by gun violence and hateful, discriminatory rhetoric, the act of coming together, becoming educated and understanding the importance of solidarity are steps toward progress and mutual respect. These are steps toward creating a world in which people fight for each other, rather than against.

“However you connect to do so, connect with each other,” Schwartz says. “Be kind to each other. It’s such a Jewish value, loving thy neighbor, and I think this is the opportunity for us as Jewish people to show that. To show that what we want for ourselves we are going to do for everyone else.”

In response to the shooting and other acts of discrimination on campus, Assanis has been sending out multiple emails to students and faculty condemning this behavior and standing in solidarity with those affected, while also showing support for underrepresented groups.

“Jewish students at the university should know that we share their grief and that we, as a community, are standing together with them in this difficult time,” Assanis stated in an email. “Part of being at the university is being connected by shared values of respect, civility and compassion. When tragedy hits, it is important that we are all here for each other … to listen, learn and care as a community.”

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