Atlanta’s Jewish community reacted with shock and grief, and then with prayers and planning, to the Shabbat morning horror at the Tree of Life synagogue in the heavily-Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
For some in Atlanta, the terrorism in Pittsburgh was personal.
The Anti-Defamation League termed the shootings – in which 11 congregants of three congregations that hold services in the building were killed – “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”
As of late Saturday night, the identities of the dead had not been released by authorities.
In addition to those slain, four police officers and two congregants were wounded.
Saturday night, the U.S. Attorney filed 29 federal charges against the alleged gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers – whose social media posts were replete with anti-Semitic vitriol and hatred of immigrants. The charges included 11 counts of obstruction of the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence.
Tree of Life Congregation was organized in 1864 and chartered in 1865 as Etz Hayyim, by members who broke away from Rodef Shalom when that congregation adopted customs of the Reform movement. In 1882, the congregation began using the English name, Tree of Life. In 1886, Tree of Life aligned itself with Conservative Judaism. In 2010, Tree of Life merged with Or L’Simcha, a small Conservative congregation then just three years old, whose members had held services in a room at the synagogue, forming the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation. A Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash, also holds services in the building.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta has established a website – jewishatlanta.org/unitedwestand – as a central location for information about various vigils being planned in Atlanta.
Numerous members of Atlanta’s Jewish community have ties to Pittsburgh, including Beth Gluck, the Southern Zone Director for the Jewish National Fund, originally from that city.
“The attack was first and foremost an attack against my people. It was a premeditated anti-Semitic massacre. And then, it became even more personal because it touched my community, a community that gave me so much as a young woman and a Jew. While my family in Pittsburgh is OK, nobody is OK,” Gluck said in a message to the Atlanta Jewish Times.
JFGA executive director Eric Robbins grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Robbins returned to Atlanta Saturday from a week in Israel and sent the following note to friends and colleagues, which the Federation later released:
“This morning I returned from a week in Israel with many colleagues and friends who are, like me, from Pittsburgh. While in Israel, we spent a good bit of time together talking about the threats to the World Jewish Community. As soon as I landed in Atlanta, I went with my daughter to Sabbath services at our shul. During the service, the rabbi asked me to leave the sanctuary, and he told me that he had learned of the tragedy in my hometown. I shared a moment of disbelief with a fellow congregant who celebrated his bar mitzvah at Tree of Life in our beloved Pittsburgh. It felt like 9/11 when I lived in NYC.
“Pittsburgh is the city I will always call home. It is the place where I always feel safe and secure. It is the Jewish community that helped me with comfort and hope through so much loss. How could there be a massacre in Pittsburgh – in a synagogue? People like me went to shul like they always do on Saturday morning, and a monster came and killed them. I don’t understand, and I don’t know that anyone can. I later heard one of the victim’s names. I remember him as one of the sweetest people to walk the earth. Now I await the names of the other 10 knowing I will have a connection to many of them.
“A part of my job as the CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is to help oversee the security of our Jewish community. We can hire more guards, we can build more fences, we can train more staff, and it may help. But it won’t get to the root of the problem, which is hate. Something is warped in our society, and we need to fix it. Another part of my job is building a strong and vibrant connected Jewish community, and a community that cares about itself and others. We can’t do this if we are afraid and live behind walls and armed guards.
“I don’t have the answers, but I won’t stop trying because I believe at our core we are good. In the meantime, I will pray for the souls of those lost today and hope those grieving can find comfort. I will also pray for the continued strength of our leaders like Jeff Finkelstein, my counterpart in Pittsburgh who is helping to hold that community together.
“I wish for strength for our community here in Atlanta which knows hate all too well, and I hope this massacre will bring us all together so that we, too, are STRONGER THAN HATE!”
On Facebook, JFGA posted a letter signed by its board chairman, Mark Silberman, that said, “In light of this morning’s situation, security has already been heightened in the Atlanta community,” though those measures were not specified.
Under the guidance of Cathal Lucy, its Director of Community Wide Security, JFGA monitors security issues related to the Jewish community through the Secure Community Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America & the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“In the world of security, there are always improvements you can make,” Lucy, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Secret Service, who has held the JFGA post since October 2015, told the Atlanta Jewish Times in 2017. “Emergency action plans are live documents. That’s something that should be reviewed continuously.”
Temple Sinai, in Sandy Springs, planned to adapt its 10 a.m. Sunday morning learning program to focus on the terrorism at the Tree of Life synagogue, with Rabbi Brad Levenberg speaking on spiritual concerns and Jack Feldman, the temple’s executive director, answering questions about security.
Additionally, Dr. Ina Enoch, a psychologist with JF&CS, and Marisa Kaiser, Temple Sinai’s director of the Center for Learning & Engagement, were to be available to talk with parents “searching for the language to speak to their children about this tragedy, and to those among us who are scared and searching for ways to process these tragic events.”
Temple Sinai also planned to hold a vigil, open to the community, on Sunday from 12:45 – 1:15 p.m.
“Our hearts go out to the Pittsburgh Jewish community for today’s horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue,” Dov Wilker, Southeast Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee, said in letter to Jewish community leaders.
The AJC will host a Tuesday meeting at The Temple, bringing together not only Jewish religious and communal groups, but also leaders from other religions and ethnicities, “to show the importance of standing together,” Wilker said.
The Temple used its Facebook page to outline its reaction and plans.
“We are deeply saddened by the news this morning of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It is a sad day for Jews around the world this Shabbat and our hearts and prayers are with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. This act was directed at the soul of the entire Jewish community. The Temple shares in the grief resulting from this and every senseless act of violence,” The Temple said, in a statement signed by Senior Rabbi Peter Berg, executive director Mark Jacobson, and Rabbi Steven Rau, the Director of Lifelong Learning.
Atlanta police would be a visible presence outside The Temple throughout the day Sunday. In addition, “All doors will be locked throughout the day tomorrow (Sunday),” with entrance available through the chapel lobby and motor lobby.
Addressing parents, the statement said, “We want you to know that all teachers, staff and madrichim are trained in lock-down procedures every year, and all classrooms and bathrooms have locks and shades for emergencies.”
Congregation Bet Haverim plans to offer prayers at its Friday night worship service, on Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
A statement on the CBH Facebook page included: “These violent anti-Semitic acts have no place in our society. Like other people of faith, we should be able to find solace, comfort and peace in our places of worship, rather than fear. We must collectively stand together against the terror that white supremacists continue to wreak on Jews.”
The Marcus Jewish Community Center posted on Facebook: “Our thoughts are with the Jewish community and the law enforcement officers in Pittsburgh. As ever, our main priority is the safety and security of our members, staff, and guests. We remain steadfastly committed to your safety.”
A statement issued by Congregation Ahavath Achim Rabbis Neil Sander and Laurence Rosenthal read in part: “Our anger at what occurred today, at the alleged perpetrator and at the fact of a documented increase in expressions of anti-Semitism in our country, requires no explanation. We must acknowledge our anger and its validity. Yet, we must also maintain proper perspective. The world does not hate the Jews. Yes, there are people in the world who hate Jews, but there are many more people who are reaching out to our community now with caring and sympathetic expressions. While some of us may now feel more vulnerable than we did prior to Shabbat morning at the synagogue and at other Jewish institutions, we urge you not to act on the basis of that feeling. When such feelings lead us to absent ourselves from the synagogue and other Jewish institutions, we give terrorists exactly what they seek. Please do not do so. We are currently reviewing all security measures at the synagogue. Later this week, the appropriate congregational leadership will communicate with you about those security measures.”
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman, at Congregation Beth Shalom, issued a statement that said Dunwoody police, “have assured us that they will be increasing patrols around the synagogue, especially during Shabbat services when the building is open to the public. And throughout the week we will remain vigilant in following all of our security protocols, restricting entry to the building, as well as the regular surveillance patrols that we currently have in place.”
“Sadly, the Jewish people have not been strangers to threats, violence and intimidation throughout our history. Those who perpetrate such cowardly acts on innocent shul-goers want us to cower in fear and run away from our Jewishness. That will not be our response. We will remain proud of who we are and join together as a kehilah, as our siddur states in the Prayer for Peace: “to praise, to labor and to love,” Zimmerman said.
Beth Shalom plans a Solidarity Shabbat on Saturday, Nov. 3.
On its Facebook page, Jewish Family & Career Services said: “It’s so difficult and disturbing to write yet another message about the grief and despair we feel about yet another shooting – this time the violence that shattered the Sabbath at the Tree of Life synagogue.
“Once again, our thoughts, prayers, and love are with those of the Jewish community because of senseless violence. We are grieving, but we MUST also ask ourselves, what is one thing I can do NOW to create change?
“Action keeps us from becoming numb, and change will come when we all say ENOUGH. Until then, Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh, we continue to keep you in our prayers.”
Allison Padilla-Goodman, ADL Southeast Regional Director, issued a statement that said, “We are devastated for the families and community in Pittsburgh. The terror and fear generated by this crime reverberate across the South, and this is the unique impact of a hate crime. The Jewish community of Atlanta is strong and has many friends, and we appreciate the outpouring of solidarity and support at this time.”
The Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism issued a statement that read in part: “AIAAS is heartbroken for everyone in the Pittsburgh Jewish community and we mourn with them as we all try to process this horrendous act of hatred. And while we are devastated, we are not, and never will be, afraid. We will still gather, pray and be part of vibrant Jewish communities, here in Atlanta and around the country.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the Atlanta-based education director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization that advocates on behalf of racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, took to Twitter, saying:
“The holiness of Shabbat was destroyed today. #antisemitism is an abomination and if you are allowing baseless hatred to go unchecked you are part of the problem.”
Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta posted a statement reading: “The people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta extend our sincere & heartfelt support to our Jewish brethren in Pittsburg & beyond whose peace & serenity were stolen by those acts of brutality today. We want them to know of our love & closeness in faith.”
As the situation progresses, the AJT will report on further developments and 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. 30.