In some ways, Saturday’s synagogue shooting in Poway, Calif., that left one woman dead was more of a jolt than the October shooting at Tree of Life that left 11 dead in Pittsburgh.
Until Saturday, it was possible to regard the Pittsburgh shooting – the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history, tragic in its implications, significance and human devastation – as something of an isolated incident. After Poway, a lingering, horrifying but consequential conundrum has emerged: Is this a turning point for Jewish life in the United States, or is it simply a measure of life in the country today?
That is the difficult, heartbreaking question that is unavoidable in the wake of another shooting at a synagogue on the six-month anniversary of the carnage at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life.
No one knows the answer. But also no one knows how hate crimes – President Donald Trump used that phrase immediately after the incident and law-enforcement authorities affirmed that notion Sunday – like these two can be battled.
The reaction to Poway was as swift as it was to Pittsburgh: The episode was deplored, its victim mourned and the entire calamity swiftly was moored in the consciousness of the community, the country and the world.
Spontaneous vigils sprouted around the globe, including, poignantly, one attended by more than a hundred at the corner of Shady and Wilkins Avenues in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, the site of Tree of Life. It’s now boarded up but its weathered tributes and faded handmade signs constitute a sorrowful shrine, the neighbourhood transformed into a sturdy symbol of the tensions and tragedies of the age.
At that site the sentiment of “never again,” with roots in the reaction to the Holocaust that claimed six million Jewish lives, has been the leitmotif of the past six months, during which the structure has become a site of melancholy pilgrimage. And yet, “never again” proved to be a false hope.
“My words of ‘never again’ have disappeared from my language,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the Tree of Life massacre and became an international symbol of the war against anti-Semitism, told the gathering. “They’ve been replaced with ‘yet again.’ And so it is that we stand here yet again at this corner as one united community.”
Pittsburgh, to be sure, has been transformed by its hometown tragedy.
Throughout the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, lawn signs speak of intolerance of hate, and throughout the city adults wear T-shirts emblazoned with the new symbol of the community, with a Star of David substituted for one of the iconic four-pointed stars on the local football team’s logo.
In the weeks and months after the shootings, Pittsburgh has held several vigils, prayer services and multifaith gatherings. Priests, ministers and imams have crowded into synagogues and rabbis have returned the gestures, visiting churches and mosques. The incident has spawned deep introspection in the city, the community has a fresh sense of unity, solidarity marches have filled the streets.
And yet for all that, a rifle-toting gunman – who apparently described himself as an anti-Semite and white supremacist and claimed credit for setting fire to an Escondido, Calif., mosque – shot up the sanctuary in California where six months ago a synagogue official characterized the shooting at Tree of Life as “a community tragedy” that was “felt by everyone, not just by Jews.”
And so great mystery mingles with great misery in the American Jewish community today: how to fight – and how to prevent – these episodes of violence, hate crimes directed toward this prominent American minority. But also, as news reports have affirmed in the wake of the Passover shooting, toward Muslims as well, for the alleged shooter’s apparent online manifesto indicated he drew inspiration from not only Tree of Life but also from the mosque attacks in New Zealand.
The natural impulse in these episodes is to express horror and determination – not to tolerate attacks on tolerance, to carry on. “Our response is to keep travelling and keep living,” said Naomi Blaine Kleinman, a retired business executive from West Hartford, Conn.
All that, plus the conviction that the power of love over hate eventually will prevail.
“In the face of senseless hate, we commit to live proudly as Jews in this glorious country,” said Rabbi Yonah Fradkin, executive director of Chabad of San Diego County. “We strongly believe that love is exponentially more powerful than hate. We are deeply shaken by the loss of a true woman of valour, Lori Kaye, who lost her life solely for living as a Jew.”
That phrase, “woman of valour,” is no random locution, and is freighted with meaning at this moment. It comes directly from Proverbs 31, which includes an appeal for “those who cannot speak for themselves” and a salute to women “whose lamp never goes out at night.”
The passage is often read on the Sabbath and at a funeral for a woman. This week that phrase almost certainly will be invoked in Southern California at the funeral rites for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, dead at 60 on the last day of Passover in a synagogue she visited to say the Kaddish memorial prayer for her mother.