Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘It’s just frightening’: Area Jewish congregations react to Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Area synagogues have already implemented extra security in reaction to Saturday's killings in Pittsburgh.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Barbara Breitman sing songs in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square during a vigil for the victims of the shooting at The Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Barbara Breitman sing songs in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square during a vigil for the victims of the shooting at The Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.Read moreJonathan Wilson / For the Inquirer

Hours after shots first rang out Saturday morning at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, many Philadelphia-area Jews had not even heard the news.

Their phones had been turned off as they gathered for Shabbat service. Told for the first time, some reacted with sadness, anger, and despair upon learning of the shooting that left a reported 11 people dead and six others injured.

"It's tragic," Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld from Young Israel in Cherry Hill said. "It's just frightening. Unfortunately, these shootings have become common. We're sad whenever there is loss of life."

Bienenfeld, who was told of the shooting by a reporter, was leading a group of adults and children on a half-mile walk in the rain along Cooper Landing Road to services at Congregation Sons of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue also in Cherry Hill.

It particularly hits home when victims are targeted from the same religion, he said.

At Sons of Israel, a large sedan blocked the driveway entrance during services. Bienenfeld said that the congregation has worked for years with Cherry Hill police on security.

"We have extra security already," he said.​

>> READ MORE: New Jersey church adds armed police for Mass following school shootings

At the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the security director was in constant contact Saturday with Philadelphia police, suburban agencies, and the Secure Community Network — a security coalition funded by Jewish federations nationwide and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Though the immediate threat seemed to have passed, security remained on high alert, said Steven Rosenberg, the group's chief marketing officer.

"But they're taking every precaution because you just don't know," Rosenberg said.

At Temple Beth Sholom, also in Cherry Hill, a security guard patrolled outside as services were ending.  But the extra security was nothing new for the synagogue.

Barry Sherman was leaving services and was angered by the news.

"Let me just say there's been a rise of anti-Semitism the past two years," Sherman said.

He cited the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 as an example, and what he said was the president's failure to more forcefully condemn the leaders of the Unite the Right rally.

Trump condemned the Pittsburgh shootings in comments to reporters.

"It's a terrible, terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world, and something has to be done," the president said.

Jewish members of the Pennsylvania House quickly condemned the violence.

"We are shocked, horrified and deeply saddened by the tragic shooting today at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh," said the statement by State Reps. Robert Freeman, of Northampton, Michael Schlossberg, of Lehigh, and Jared Solomon, of Philadelphia. "… And for it to occur in a synagogue on the Sabbath is all the more heartbreaking, that someone would take the holiest of days to murder innocent worshipers."

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, of the Wyncote-based Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegewhose 95 affiliates include the Dor Hadash congregation at the site of the Pittsburgh shooting, believed some members of that community might be among the victims.

"I am waiting to hear. This may unfold even more terribly," she said Saturday evening.

Waxman bemoaned what she considers a deteriorating discourse in the country, adding that "racists and white supremacists have been emboldened, and we see that online and in speech."

Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia, said, "There is a divisiveness in our society today that was greater than existed a number of years ago."

Baron-Baer said there was a 57 percent leap in anti-Semitic incidents nationally from 2016 to 2017, and 43 percent higher in Pennsylvania.

"Certainly an event like this increases the fear that Jews feel for their safety when they go to religious services or other Jewish community events," Baron-Baer said. "But I also think it strikes fear in the hearts and minds of people of other faiths and beliefs."

Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA., who is Jewish, said she knows a lot of people in the Squirrel Hill community where the shootings took place. CeaseFire PA focuses on preventing gun violence.

"It did hit me in a different way," Goodman said. "But it's no different than the church shootings and movie-theater shootings we've seen. It doesn't have to be this way. "

Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, a public relations professional in the Philadelphia area, said she had posted on Facebook on Saturday, wondering how people were dealing with "the horror that's been going on in this country." That was before she had learned of the Pittsburgh shootings.

Once she knew of them, "I felt horror, an intense, intense sadness. And I think it's grown from that into shock and disbelief," she said. "The synagogue is where you go to feel peace and warmth and to connect with God, your community, and yourself."

Staff writers Patricia Madej and Tom Avril contributed to this article.