Twenty-four hours is not enough time to process the Shabbat morning massacre in Pittsburgh – especially for Atlantans with ties to that city, its Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and to the congregations that worship at the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha synagogue.
Meanwhile, a sense of urgency drives those charged with ensuring the security of Atlanta’s Jewish institutions.
Eleven worshippers (eight men and three women, ages 54 to 97) were killed when a man armed with a semi-automatic weapon and three handguns – and apparently fueled by a hatred of Jews – rampaged through the building where three congregations were meeting. Four police officers and two worshippers were wounded.
Bobby Harris attended a Sunday vigil at Temple Sinai vigil wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt. Harris, the director of Camp Coleman and of youth and camping services for the Southeast Region of the Union for Reform Judaism, grew up in Monroeville, a suburb 15 miles from Pittsburgh, and his family were members of the Tree of Life. Harris recalled being there four or five days a week, for several years, at religious school and synagogue services.
“It’s hard for me to believe that the place where I grew up, where I went into the sanctuary and felt so secure, and looked up into the beautiful stained glass windows, and wondered about where I came from, and who I was, and where I was going, what was the purpose of life, all these ultimate questions as a young person that were nurtured there, it’s hard to believe that the same place is the place where the most violent massacre of Jews in American history occurred,” Harris said.
After arriving home Saturday from a week in Israel and then learning of the tragedy in the neighborhood where he grew up, “I am jet lagged and emotionally drained,” said Eric Robbins, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta
Despite the travel and fatigue, Robbins took himself to services at Congregation Shearith Israel. After a congregant informed Rabbi Air Kaiman, the rabbi pulled Robbins aside and gave him the news.
“It’s devastating. It really is. It’s hard to believe. Here we are in 2018 and things like this can happen,” Robbins said. “The piece that really drives it home for me is obviously that I drove by that synagogue no less than 5,000 times in my life. It was part of my neighborhood and part of the community I felt so much a part of and so safe in.”
“What do you do? You find strength in community. You find strength in connection. It’s like any trauma, any loss, that’s where you get your support,” Robbins said.
One of Robbins’ first calls on Saturday was with Cathal Lucy, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Secret Service, JFGA’s Director of Community Wide Security.
“The biggest thing is, this makes us realize how important it is, for us as a community, to continually work on our security protocols on a daily basis,” Lucy said.
Atlanta’s community security program dates to the September 2001 terror attacks. In the years since, a foundation has been built that includes communication between the Jewish community and local, state, and federal authorities.
By Sunday afternoon, Lucy had been contacted by more than a dozen local Jewish institutions wanting to talk about their security preparations. “I’m here as a tool for people to utilize in the Jewish community of Atlanta,” he said.
When he meets on a quarterly basis with representatives of local organizations to review security issues, “I tell people that security is a living and breathing thing. It is a function that we have to participate in, daily,” Lucy said.
Many congregations hire off-duty police officers on the High Holy Days or for special events. Some have such a presence on a regular basis.
Asked if all congregations should hire police officers for all services, Lucy said, “I lean toward, yes, you should have a security element there as a deterrent.”
Security is more than locking doors or installing security cameras and lights. Lucy said that such questions as, “How do we react if something happens? What is our emergency action plan?” must be asked and answered as preparation for the day that they’re needed.
Beth Gluck was attending the Jewish National Fund national meeting in Phoenix, where one speaker was New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who grew up at Tree of Life and wrote an emotional piece about her memories and Saturday’s tragedy.
Gluck grew up a street away from Weiss’ mother, who has been a friend for many years. “The video thats on TV, of the police all decked out with bulletproof vests and everything, that’s on my corner,” said Gluck, the Jewish Nation Fund Southern Zone Director.
“It’s beyond being from Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill. It’s an attack on our people,” she said.
Sylvia Gross and her late husband, Ben, raised their children in a house at the intersection of Wilkins Avenue and South Negley Avenue, in Squirrel Hill. A Google search of that intersection now includes a red dot two blocks away, labeled “Pittsburgh shooting.”
“My heart is heavy because Pittsburgh is in the middle of my heart,” said Gross, 88. The family moved to Atlanta in 1967.
A family tragedy was avoided when Gross’ 90-year-old first cousin Jeanie Rosenthal, a regular at a Conservative congregation that meets in the basement of Tree of Life, woke Saturday with an achy neck and decided not to go to shul.
Some of those shot were in the basement. “She’s beside herself,” Gross said of her cousin. “These are people she’s been with for so long.”
Seven more services or vigils are scheduled for Monday and at least five are planned for Tuesday.
Monday, October 29
Service/vigil at Congregation B’nai Torah, 6:15 pm
Memorial service and vigil at Congregation Beth Shalom, 6:30 pm
Minyan/memorial service at Congregation Etz Chaim, 6:30 pm
Memorial service at Young Israel of Toco Hills, 7 pm
Memorial service at Chabad North Fulton, 7:30 pm
Memorial service at Congregation Or Hadash, 7:30 pm
Service of memory, healing and hope at Congregation Dor Tamid, 7:30 pm
Tuesday, October 30
Memorial service at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 6 pm
Service of solidarity and healing at Temple Kol Emeth, in the sanctuary, 7:30 pm
Interfaith gathering in mourning, memory and solidarity at Gesher L’Torah, 7:30 pm
As the situation progresses, the AJT will report on further developments and the community response during discussions of security and safety for us all. Pick up our Nov. 2 print issue that will hit the streets this Wednesday, Oct. 31.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta created a website – www.jewishatlanta.org/unitedwestand/ – to keep track of the vigils and/or services scheduled in response to the Pittsburgh tragedy. There were five such events Sunday, including at Temple Sinai, where 11 yahrzeit candles were lighted.