Beginning in 1880 — before the words "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" were stamped on the Statue of Liberty dedicated on this very date 132 years ago — Jewish refugees fleeing violent pogroms in Europe were often met in New York Harbor by volunteers from the city's teeming immigrant community.
"Jewish people going down to the docks, meeting the boats coming from Ellis Island, providing kosher meals, helping people reunite with their family members and get jobs" is how Melanie Nezer described the early years of what started as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and is today simply known as HIAS. "That's what we do today — the only thing that's changed is that the people that we're helping aren't necessarily Jewish."
In 2018, the world has more refugees than any time in its history, and wherever people are fleeing misery and seeking safe harbor — from war-torn Syria to America's southern border, where a wave of migrants are trying to escape murder and deprivation — HIAS is probably there, offering legal aid, temporary shelter, or advocating for the plight of the displaced. The truth is that not too many Americans were paying much attention to the good work HIAS is doing.
And one of the few who did was a 46-year-old loner in his Pittsburgh apartment — the kind of man who said very little to his actual neighbors but had quite a lot to say in a cyber world of rank racial and religious hatred and white male supremacy that has been hiding in plain site.
The man who would become the alleged perpetrator of the deadliest attack specifically targeting Jews in the 242-year history of the United States had clearly harbored irrational anti-Semitic rage for some time. His hatred seems to precede the recent despicable downturn in America's political discourse. The future gunman — in keeping with the long-standing practice of this column, I won't glorify him by using his name — had a beef with President Trump, but it was that Trump was somehow too moderate, a tool of a bogus international Jewish conspiracy that he fantasized was everywhere.
Even so, the Pittsburgher's online postings made it clear his warped mind was being taken to new, dangerous places by the rhetoric coming from right-wing national media and the highest levels of the Republican Party, including a president who has called a caravan of Honduran refugees "an assault on our country" and has taken to outbursts against "globalists," long a buzzword of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.
As reports surged — especially on Fox News and right-wing outlets — about the migrant caravan wending its way across Guatemala and Mexico, the alleged gunman's posts on a hate-filled site called Gab grew more frenetic. He posted a picture of refugees entering a truck with a Star of David emblem right around the same time that both Fox and GOP officials were promoting unfounded theories that liberal billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish, was financing the caravan.
Although HIAS — which has provided lawyers and other support for asylum-seekers on the U.S. southern border — has nothing to do with the caravan, the angry Pittsburgher blamed them nonetheless. Earlier this month, he directed an angry post toward HIAS asking, "Do you like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?" On Saturday morning, he wrote this: "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."
At 9:45 a.m., police say, he burst into the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 assault rifle — the weapon of choice for America's mass shooters — as well as a Glock and two handguns. Within moments, 11 worshippers lay dead and several more people were wounded, including police who raced toward the bullets and prevented an even more unimaginable catastrophe on a dreary Saturday. One of the dead was a 97-year-old woman — old enough to be alive during the Holocaust — only to be murdered amid the hatreds of 21st-century America.
The synagogue shooting put an exclamation point on one of the worst weeks any of us can remember. It knocked out of the headlines several days of breathless news reports about the 56-year-old "lost soul" in South Florida who found a purpose and arguably a father figure in Donald Trump, and then terrorized Trump's enemies in the media and in Democratic politics, including Soros, with (thankfully, ineffective) pipe bombs. Forgotten almost completely was the tale of an unhinged Kentucky man who reportedly tried to shoot up an African American church in Louisville and — thwarted by a locked door — went to Kroger and murdered the first two black shoppers he saw.
The last time Americans felt such despair bordering on hopelessness came exactly 50 years ago, when 1968 was shattered by the gunshots that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the riots in the streets.
This time feels the same and yet the circumstances are also very different — the dead are innocent everyday Americans who were merely trying to pray or buy groceries, the killers are avatars of a lost generation of middle-aged white men, and they are enabled by hateful rhetoric that comes from the very top, including a "nationalist" president who thinks he can win an election by frightening and dividing the nation he was elected to lead.
Where to find hope? Many were quick to point out that Saturday's synagogue shooting occurred just three blocks from the long-time home of one of Pittsburgh's most famous residents, the late children's TV icon Fred Rogers. "What changes the world?" Mr. Rogers asked once. "The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound and be shared." It was also Rogers who told children that, in times of trouble, look for the helpers.
In Pittsburgh, one very bad man was consumed by his hatreds — but the helpers were everywhere. It starts with the remarkable courage of the police officers — from a department that still bears the scars from a 2009 incident when a right-wing zealot named Richard Poplawski gunned down three cops — who heard the gunfire and raced toward it. But it also includes the thousands who took to the streets of Squirrel Hill to demonstrate the power of love.
"People should not have to live in fear," a 49-year-old woman named Renee Shissler told my Inquirer colleague Chris Palmer on Saturday night in Squirrel Hill. But you don't have to live in Pittsburgh to take a stand against the warped brand of hatred that fueled the synagogue shooting. This is the right time to take notice of the unsung compassion and humanity of groups like HIAS that help the world's most desperate people — and to support what they do.
Nezer, the HIAS executive, told me on Sunday morning that workers there are still in a state of shock over Saturday's events. "It was a lot to process," she said of the dual shocks that hit when some of its people were still at their own local Shabbat services — first that a mass shooting had targeted Jews, and then the reports that he was driven by rage toward HIAS.
As the refugee-aid group has expanded around the globe, HIAS has encountered increasing controversy over its work in charged conflict zones like Syria, which has come under fire from a few Jewish groups. But Nezer said the group is still perplexed that the work it does — helping refugees get food, shelter and legal services, and advocating for more humane intervention for people like Myanmar's displaced Rohingya — is raising hackles in the United States.
"This is a group that stands up for welcoming people — for justice and fairness," Nezer told me, adding later, "This is basic humanity — for some reason that's become controversial." But times have changed, and these days the fish is rotting from the head. Masha Gessen, the New Yorker writer and Vladimir Putin critic who herself was aided in her flights to safety by HIAS, wrote this weekend that HIAS suddenly is "the perfect target for all hatreds" and that, aided by Trump's rhetoric, "terrorists equal refugees equal HIAS equals all Jews."
One of the many emails that poured into HIAS on Saturday night, Nezer said, carried the subject line: "What he hated was the best in us."
Indeed. The only known antidote to hate is love. The only real way to fight back against Saturday's insanity in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood is to look for the helpers — and give them our support. One way to make sure that violence does not utterly destroy what's left of our democracy is to follow the words that were chanted by vigil attendees on Saturday night: "Vote, vote, vote!"
But if you have a few dollars to spare, please consider making a contribution to HIAS in the name of the Tree of Life victims. Here is a link to their donation page. By supporting the work of HIAS and other groups that work tirelessly on behalf of refugees, we'll be taking one small step back toward where America stood on this date in 1886, when helping people yearning to breathe free was still our basic humanity.