By Sabina Mollot
While it happened many miles away from New York City, for Jewish New Yorkers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting massacre on October 27 hit way too close to home, especially since locally, in the days following, there were reports of anti-Semitic graffiti and other types of vandalism at Jewish houses of worship in Brooklyn.
Many attended a vigil for the victims in Pittsburgh in Union Square shortly after the incident. Others jammed their temples for special Sabbath services that Friday night. Town & Village’s own associate editor, Maria Rocha-Buschel, found herself attending services for the first time in — she admitted — years, and reported that The Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park was completely packed. Much of the evening’s service was focused on the shootings and Rabbi Daniel Alder read a letter from a congregant who’d grown up near the Tree of Life Synagogue where eleven people were murdered, and knew two of the victims.
East End Temple in Stuyvesant Square Park was also crowded “beyond capacity,” noted a congregant there, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein. “There was a lot of unity in difficult times,” he added.
Epstein said he believes some of blame for growing sentiment of anti-Semitism as well as other forms of racism and bigotry belongs to the president.
“It’s related to 2016,” said Epstein. “The language from the White House continues to stoke hatred. It allows White Nationalists’ views to be more bold. He’s really emboldening them.”
While Epstein hasn’t heard concerns about anti-Semitic acts within his East Side district, he said it has been on the minds of his Jewish constituents and fellow congregants nonetheless.
“We’re figuring out what we can do on the East Side. Everyone feels we need to collaborate and talk about issues of racism and anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Deborah Hirsch of The Village Temple on East 12th Street, seemed to agree, citing the Anti-Defamation League’s stats that incidents have “increased exponentially” in 2016 and 2017 and blamed a lack of leadership.
“Whether it’s a lone wolf doing graffiti in the city or an organized group with what we saw in Charlottesville,” said Hirsch, “there was a tipping point in having permission (to use hateful) language.”
The Village Temple also had a full congregation after Pittsburgh, with a memorial service for those who were killed.
Rabbi Larry Sebert of Town & Village Synagogue in Gramercy said that while none of his congregants have told him they’re frightened for their safety in the wake of Pittsburgh, there is “some anxiety” and “I think there is some feeling of vulnerability.
“Given the long history of anti-Semitism and the fact that it never does seem to disappear, people feel nervous when there is such a violent attack against the community.”
But, he added, there has been support from the interfaith community.
Following the shootings, Sebert he reached out to a number of pastors from East Village churches who all accepted his invitation to co-lead a prayer for peace at a Sabbath service on November 3. The rabbi called their support “remarkable and heartening – and I believe significantly different than what has happened in the past.”