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Local Leaders Respond to Tragedy in Pittsburgh

TrumpNational strife came too close to home this weekend with the Shabbat massacre on Saturday October 27 that killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Those of us who had been consoling themselves with the idea that Trump’s rhetoric was pointed at the Mexican border or the Middle East woke up to the realization that his angry words and hate speech could quickly become our problem too. We can no longer say, “It can’t happen here.”

With so many synagogues in our vicinity, locals fear that the random act of violence in Pennsylvania means that we are all at risk and can no longer deny that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

A vigil was held at Congregation Kol Ami on Sunday with a keynote address from David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee. His words are below along with comments from the leadership at Westchester Reform Temple and Westchester Jewish Family Services. Read their insights and recommendations for what you can do to combat this deeply disturbing trend, in addition to voting on Tuesday November 6.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee

After Pittsburgh, We Need A Coalition Of Conscience

We knew anti-Semitism was out there. We knew it was growing. More and more people felt uninhibited in expressing their hatred and bigotry.

Deadly attacks against Jewish targets had already occurred in other countries, from Belgium to Bulgaria, Argentina to Panama, Turkey to Tunisia, and France to Denmark — not to mention Israel. Yet American Jews nonetheless lived with a kind of innocence: surely nothing on the scale of Pittsburgh was conceivable here.

That innocence has been shattered, of course. It has happened, and 11 Jews, pillars of the proud Pittsburgh community, were murdered in a house of worship by a killer intent on destroying Jewish lives.

Many are understandably dazed, depressed and disoriented. If it could unfold in Pittsburgh, it could take place anywhere. The 11 are us, and we are they. Whether we knew them or not, they were probably not more than two degrees of separation from us, and to look at their photos was to see pictures of our own family, our friends, our neighbors and, yes, ourselves.DavidHarrisDavid Harris

The immediate response has been heartwarming. Solidarity events and memorial services are being held across the country. In one remarkable example, a countywide gathering was announced in White Plains on Sunday at noon. Four hours later, the synagogue was overflowing, with as many as 1,500 people crammed into a space that could barely hold 1,000. And among them were dozens of elected officials and interfaith partners.

And many world leaders have expressed their solidarity, support and grief. We have heard from officials in Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden and the UN, among others, who say they stand with the Jewish community. As one wrote: “Anti-Semitism is our worst existential enemy, and we must fight it with every conceivable means.”

But therein lies the looming question. Once the gatherings are behind us, the tweets become a fading memory, and the “thoughts and prayers” are filed, what’s left? Are we back to business as usual? How do we fight this age-old pathology “with every conceivable means?”

Needless to say, it would be gratifying to know that the likes of a Jonas Salk were working on a vaccine against this dreaded social disease. Well, many of us have been trying to do just that, but haven’t yet come up with the magic formula, as Pittsburgh painfully illustrates.

But there are still things that can be done.

First, the threat of anti-Semitism has to be acknowledged. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I could write a book on the last 18 years, as we met with one world leader after another trying to convince them of the growing magnitude of the problem. While some listened, too many others didn’t, suggesting we were exaggerating the danger or misunderstanding its nature.

Second, combating anti-Semitism requires recognizing the main sources of the menace, and they are three: the far right, the far left and jihadists. Some, for a variety of political reasons, would rather downplay one or more of these wellsprings, but all pose a grave danger — and all need to be confronted head-on.

Third, political rhetoric has consequences. When elected officials resort to incendiary language, or turn to coded words and wink-and-nod gestures, the effects can be profound. Public discourse in the United States today, in the realm of politics and beyond, continues to head to the gutter. Opponents become enemies, conspiracy theories abound and social media becomes the great enabler. If leaders don’t act responsibly and bring us back from the brink, we will all pay a heavy price.

Fourth, this is the time for a coalition of conscience to emerge — to stand up proudly and loudly for the values of decency, civility, mutual respect, bipartisanship and unity. If nature abhors a vacuum, so does democracy. If that coalition doesn’t stand up and stay the course, then, as we’ve seen, others, with very different agendas, will fill the space.

Fifth, for all the blessings of America, and they are practically infinite, violence has become too much part and parcel of our landscape. It takes many forms — from the language of incitement and confrontation, to the number of lethal weapons in the wrong hands; from those who get a rise from in-your-face encounters imbued with physical danger, to those who fall through the cracks of the systems designed to identify social malcontents; and, of course, to those, of different motivations, who unleashed Charleston, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook and Fort Hood.

And sixth, most immediately, as many people as possible — Jews and non-Jews alike — should consider attending synagogue services this weekend. We’re calling it #ShowUpForShabbat. It’s a way of demonstrating unity and shared destiny, of saying “no fear.”

It’s a message to the haters that their America is not ours. Our America champions democracy and pluralism. It celebrates, not bemoans, our diversity. And it mourns, not exalts, what happened in Pittsburgh last Shabbat morning.

The Leadership of Westchester Reform Temple

“We are all devastated at this despicable act of hatred and violence that goes against all that we hold sacred as Jews and Americans. Once again, we find ourselves mourning. Once again, we must confront Anti-Semitism. Once again, we feel the wrenching pain of unchecked gun violence.

Most of all, our hearts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, as well as the injured police officers who bravely came to their defense.

We will continue to do all that we can to support a hurting Jewish community in need. As we learn more about the situation, we will apprise our congregation of the ways in which WRT can be a source of strength and comfort to our brothers and sisters at Tree of Life.”

Seth Diamond of Westchester Jewish Community Services

We're all deeply saddened by the terrible tragedy that occurred this weekend in Pittsburgh. Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers are with the families of those who were killed and injured. Just as after the church shooting in South Carolina and the school shootings in Newtown, CT and Parkland, Florida, we once again find ourselves in the challenging position of trying to help our children and ourselves cope when hearing about acts of violence.

WJCS mobilized immediately upon finding out about the synagogue shooting, doing what we do best: counseling and comforting our community. Our Jewish Programs staff, in consultation with our Trauma team, has been in close contact with rabbis and other Jewish leaders and has had professionals at synagogues and day schools. UJA and Westchester Jewish Council have asked those throughout Westchester who need assistance to contact us. We have also offered help, through UJA, and have been in contact with the Pittsburgh Jewish Family and Children's Services.

Guidelines for Families in the Wake of a Hate Crime

When hearing frightening news, we all struggle with feelings of fear, anxiety, vulnerability, anger, and sadness. As an agency with expertise in trauma and child development, WJCS offers the following recommendations from our mental health professionals:

Take care of yourself. Stay calm and follow healthy habits. Eating well, sleeping well, and exercising can help you better manage stress and anxiety.

Reassure your child of his or her safety. Let children know that schools, law enforcement agencies, and government workers are actively working to ensure that all institutions in our area are safe and secure.

Make time to connect and talk. Sharing your feelings with others--whether it's with family, friends, or a mental health professional--can be very helpful. Be sure that children have the opportunity to share their feelings and be prepared to answer questions in a developmentally appropriate way.

Observe your family members' emotional states. Monitor their moods as well as sleeping and eating behaviors. Some may be open to articulating their fears while others emotionally disconnect or appear anxious without saying why.

Limit media exposure. Our 24/7 news cycle can reinforce and exaggerate scary thoughts for both adults and children.

Maintain normal routines. Following your regular schedule provides comfort and security.

Spend quality time with loved ones. Schedule some fun activities for yourself as well as with your children.

If sadness persists, on your part or that of your child’s, seek professional consultation.

Jospeh Kaidanow and Millie Jasper from the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center

To say once again, "our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families," rings hollow. It does not adequately convey the deep sorrow, pain and anger that we feel. We mourn any death. How do we mourn death when it happens in the very place we seek solace, peace, and respite from the world?

We send our heartfelt condolences, love and support to the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash Congregations as well as to the brave police officers who came to their defense.

The Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center solemnly pledges to fight antisemitism and racial hatred by redoubling its efforts to educate our youth, create upstanders and defend human rights with the hope of preventing such horrors in the future.

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