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There are no Words: Jewish Students Reflect on Pittsburgh

By: Anna Volpp ‘20 and Jane Whellan ‘20, Guest Contributors 11-1-18

As most of you know, this past Saturday, a shooter, Robert Bowers, entered the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania during Saturday Shabbat services and a baby naming. Screams of hatred and desires to murder Jews were heard. Twenty minutes later, 11 lives were lost, hearts were broken, and familie s were shattered. This was an attack not only against the 11 victims but against the Jewish community as a whole. The murderer now faces 44 Federal charges, including counts for using a firearm to commit murder, counts of hate crimes, and counts for impeding the right to religious freedom, a founding principle of our nation. According to the Anti-Defamation League, this was the deadliest attack on the Jewish Community on United States soil. But sadly, none of this behavior is new. In 2017, according to the Anti-defamation league, antisemitic incidents in the United States increased about 60%. 1,986 cases of vandalism, physical assault, and harassment were committed against Jews just last year.

Everyday, Jews and other marginalized groups, including but not limited to political affiliations, religions, gender identities, abilities, face this type of hatred, though most of it does not make it to the news. The numerous tragic events in the past few weeks are a sign that all affinities of people need to come together. Attacks on specific races, gender identities, religions, abilities, political affiliations, and other marginalized groups all may seem like different, isolated problems. In reality, minority groups are all facing the same discrimination, the same violence, and we all need to come together and advocate for equity and justice not just for our particular affinities, but all marginalized people’s identities. This is why Beth David Jewish Reform Congregation, along with many other places of worship held an interfaith vigil on the morning of Sunday, October 28. There were also vigils in communities all around Philadelphia and Lower Merion.

On Saturday morning, at around 9:30, my little sister came into my room. “There’s a shooting at a synagogue,” she told me, as I lay in bed, mindlessly scrolling through my phone. Even after she elaborated on the situation--that there was an active shooter and the synagogue was in Pittsburgh--it still didn’t sink in. I had not received any New York Times notification on my phone, and social media remained silent. But it was more than the lack of confirmation from sources other than my sister, it was my inability to accept that such a horrible thing could occur within my community, the Jewish community.

I spent the whole day processing the news, going about my life as I usually would while trying to come to terms with what the countless notifications on my phone, which started rolling in shortly after my sister left my room that morning, were telling me. A man had opened fire in a place of worship with the intent to kill people solely because of their religion, my religion. Imagine that: in America, the place thousands of people, not only Jews, came to in order to escape religious persecution, people were facing just that, and being murdered because of it.

On Sunday, I went to two different vigils for the Pittsburgh shooting. The first was at my synagogue, and afterwards all of the teenagers present went to have a conversation with the rabbi about how we were feeling after having processed the horrors of Saturday. What struck me the most was not a message delivered by a teenager, but what the rabbi told us.

“I’m so sorry.”

She apologized on behalf of her entire generation, and generations before her, for creating a world in which tremendous acts of violence and hate have become almost normal, even expected. She apologized for letting today’s youth grow up with regular active-shooter drills where they were trained to flee, hide, and as a last resort fight by throwing whatever they could at someone armed with a much more powerful weapon, a gun. And, while this may have just been how I interpreted her message, she apologized for the fact that it is the challenge and responsibility of our generation to clean up this mess of a world. Sure, we can receive help from older generations, and they are certainly valuable to our cause, but ultimately it is up to us, the youth, to enact our voices and create change. We need to ensure that one day we are not apologizing to our own children for the world we give them, but instead telling them stories of resilience, collaboration, and love.

The second vigil that I went to on Sunday was city-wide. People of all races and religions came to a synagogue downtown to grieve together over Saturday’s shooting, and to lift each other up and gather strength to move forward and take action. Speakers at the vigil included congressmen, members of state legislature, religious leaders of four different faiths, and representatives from a variety of Jewish organizations. And though each person worded it differently, the overall messages I received at the vigil were about the importance of coming together despite racial and religious differences, the value and power of love, particularly in the face of hate, and the desperate need for us to take action to ensure that acts of violence such as Saturday’s never happen again.

The most powerful message for me at the vigil came from a member of the sister church to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church in South Carolina that was attacked in 2015, resulting in nine deaths. He stood up and talked about how when that tragedy occurred, members of all faiths, including Judaism, poured into his church to stand together, and he said that just as we came to support them, they were there to support the Jewish community. This reminded me of a saying that I hear a lot in synagogue; "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" I’ve been thinking about this saying a lot in recent days, and how it relates our current predicament with gun violence. If we do not stand up for ourselves and push for change, how can we expect that our representatives in government will stand up for us? If we do not come together for others when they are struck by tragedy, how can we expect that they will rally behind us? And if we do not hold ourselves and our generation accountable for making change now, how can we expect that future generations will do so? How can we expect to raise our children in a world that we don’t have to apologize for? I never want to look into the horror stricken eyes of my child, or any other child, and have to say “I’m sorry.”

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