When a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and massacred 11 worshipers last Saturday, American Jewry had to confront one of its biggest fears: anti-Semitism in America.
For many American Jews, anti-Semitism is a phenomenon that was left behind when their relatives left Europe decades ago. For young Jews, especially, the tragedy at Tree of Life was a wake-up call, bringing to life the pain and violence that their ancestors experienced in the past. We talked with young Jews from the Philadelphia area about their experience with anti-Semitism and how the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre fits within that experience.
Responses have been edited lightly for clarity. Interviews were conducted by staff writer Abraham Gutman.
Rachel Abramowitz, 24, Olde Kensington
I'm not surprised that anti-Semitism exists, but more that it exists so close to home and in such a powerful way. In my life, I've never really felt like I had to hide my Jewish identity to protect my safety; and I still don't think I do. But I did have a moment yesterday. I caught a glimpse of the mezuzah on my front door and it just took me back for a second. It wouldn't cross my mind to take it down, but it really made me think. And while this terrifies me as a Jew, I am also terrified as an American. This might've been the worst anti-Semitic act of violence in American history (and I don't want to downplay how much that matters — it really matters), but this was not even near the worst act of gun violence even in the past nine months in America.
Ian Gavigan, 28, Callowhill
Jewish education and its pedagogy of suffering teaches that we have survived for millennia in the face of violence and genocide. We learn that we can always become targets. The attack on Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue breached the boundaries of that learning for me. I've spent time in Squirrel Hill. It's my state. Like so many Jews, I'm connected to people in that synagogue within a few degrees of separation. The attacker could have been shooting at me, family, friends — at any Jew. And when I remember that this kind of violence isn't limited to Jews —that it's like the horrors so many Americans face, be they refugees, Muslims, immigrants, black people, brown people, women, workers, and/or LGBTQ people — I am deeply saddened. But it also offers me a glimpse of the way forward. Together, through solidarity, we can build a world with freedom and dignity for all of us.
Sumner Lewis, 19, North Philadelphia
At first, to me this was more of just a "oh there is just another mass shooting, that really sucks." But then as the day went on, and we got more information, it was very plainly put out there that the shooter said "all Jews must die" before he went in and shot everyone. That changed just about everything. This wasn't just your average run-of-the-mill domestic terrorism; this was blatant anti-Semitism and it is just not something that you ever really think of nowadays. After this weekend, plenty of close friends have taken off their necklaces and any other Jewish regalia that they have, because they just don't feel safe putting their Jewish identity out there for everyone else to see because there have been so many anti-Semitic incidents now. It just makes me really sad and hurt because I'm really proud to be Jewish.
Albert Eisenberg, 27, Fishtown
[I found out about the shooting in synagogue, which] was surreal, especially since I had just been driving by and thinking, "Well, it's probably time to have police protection here like they do in Europe." It seems like there is and has been a big risk of anti-Semitic attacks like this. On the one hand, there was nothing new about it — it's the same old hatred of Jews. It's not an attack on "all of us," or on every discriminated-against group as I've heard some people say. It's an attack on Jews. On the other hand, there does feel like there's something new about this, considering the death toll and methods. Jews have always been targeted during times of chaos, and there is rising anti-Semitism from both fringes. Anybody who says it's a problem on only one side is either ignorant or lying.
Grace Sollberger, 17, Blue Bell
I've been sheltered from anti-Semitism. Nobody has ever said anything to me personally, but then that act and knowing that someone had so much hatred for me is crazy to think about. It is crazy to think that I'm unsafe in synagogue. … [The Monday after, in school] I was shocked that no teachers brought it up. Not a single person brought it up to me. After the Parkland shooting, my school had a walkout. So, I think it was a little confusing for me that there were announcements, there was a moment of silence for that, and no one said a single word about this. Usually my school is not a place that I would think would think less of a tragedy like this, but it kind of almost seemed that way because there wasn't anything of that nature.
Nathan Hersh, 33, Center City
The attack and its aftermath redefined my relationship with this country. Growing up as an American Jew, I mostly felt at home here. The type of anti-Semitism I grew up studying never felt like something I should fear. Even over the past couple of years, as I spoke out about the dangers of the president promoting conspiracy theories against ethnic minorities, beliefs that throughout history ended with violence against Jews, I still subconsciously saw anti-Semitism as abstract, a fringe idea rather than a threat to my flesh. The attack changed that conception. But the response from those in power changed my self-conception. The messaging that Donald Trump, the Republicans, and Fox News spread — the conspiracy theories that stoked the killer's hatred — didn't change after the attack. It got worse. It seems like Jewish blood is cheaper than the power gained by sowing fear. Going forward, I don't want to be an invisible minority here. I want to stand with every community attacked and confront this hatred forcefully.