Local Jewish leaders react to synagogue shooting


Philadelphia’s Jewish leaders are mourning the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 while planning how to protect the city’s large and diverse Jewish population against a similar attack.

To that end, more than 170 leaders took part in a security briefing Oct. 29 at he Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., FBI and Homeland Security agents joined Jewish Federation security director Frank Riehl in drilling procedures, training tips and need-to-know essentials on preparing for crisis situations.

Naomi Adler, Jewish Federation president, told PGN that the priority following the shooting is increasing security measures for Jewish institutions. “A number of Jewish communities have hired security directors in response to the growing anti-Semitism in the nation,” Adler said. “I was met with full support by the network of Jewish leaders who are in favor of a creating a security department that will regularly go over safety and security protocols.”

Rabbi Alanna Sklover, director of Lifelong Learning at the Germantown Jewish Centre, identifies as queer and noted that security is an issue for all sites that welcome all stripes.

“One of the hardest pieces that will come out of this week is communities that pride themselves on being open and welcoming to everyone, especially when we’re open for worship on Shabbat morning, are considering hiring armed guards or having other additional security procedures.”

Sklover added that this has been a particularly fraught time for her and other queer Jews.

“This isn’t a political issue. This is about people and how to best stand up to fear and hatred in all of its many forms.”

Fear was one of many emotions that led several-hundred people to fill Rittenhouse House Square Saturday night for an impromptu candlelight vigil. The mourners gathered in near silence under a cold, misting rain to remember the Tree of Life victims.

Temple Beth-Zion Israel, at 18th and Spruce streets, and one of the largest synagogues in Center City, helped organize the event.

On Saturday morning, Robert Bowers, a self-described white nationalist angered over the “caravans” of Central-American migrants, burst into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shouting, “All Jews must die,” according to Pittsburgh police on the scene. Armed with several weapons, including an AR-15 rifle, the weapon used in most recent mass shootings, Bowers killed 11 congregants.

The shooter also wounded four police officers who had run toward the bullets to stop him. Two other members of the synagogue were also wounded.

Rabbi Sklover said the shooter targeted the Tree of Life synagogue, located in the diverse and LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, “because of the openness and values that it held.” A bris, a ritual circumcision and baby-naming ceremony, was being held for the son of a gay male couple at the synagogue that morning. No children were physically harmed in the attack, which was the worst single attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Among the Philadelphians attending the impromptu vigil in Rittenhouse was Maddy Gold, a painter and design professor at Drexel University. Gold said her grandparents had fled the pogroms, her father was tasked with recording fascism as one of the Defense Department’s designated war artists during World War II, and “as a queer Jew in America under Trump, I cannot sit by and watch this country — my country, our country — be taken over by hatred and violence. I was at the vigil for myself, my family and for everyone else who feels under threat from this administration and the hate it engenders.”

On Oct. 28, an interfaith vigil was held at Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue at Broad and Mt. Vernon streets, with more than 1,500 in attendance.

Rabbi Jill Maderer organized the interfaith vigil for the entire religious community in the city to “mourn for the dead, pray for the healing of the wounded and pray for the resilience of the Jewish community and for the nation.”

Maderer said she was “devastated and heartbroken by the shooting,” but added: “I won’t say I’m shocked because there’s a lot of bigotry in our nation and that bigotry has been emboldened in recent years. People who have been demonizing the ‘others’ in society have felt some kind of license to act on hate. The fact that it was during Shabbat, a sacred time for Jews, and in the middle of a sacred ceremony, makes it more raw and feel like there’s nothing that’s off limits.”

“A number of Jewish communities have hired security directors in response to the growing anti-Semitism in the nation,” said Adler.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, anti-Semitic hate crimes accounted for half of the religious-based hate crimes in 2017 — a 57 percent increase since 2016 and the highest number since tabulation began in 1979. Jews comprise less than 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Funerals for the murder victims were being held throughout the week. 

If you feel you have been the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime, please contact the Anti-Defamation Leagueat 215-568-2223 or the Jewish Federation at 215-832-0500.