The calm of Shabbat morning services was shattered on October 27 when a man burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh shouting, “All these Jews need to die!” He opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle and three Glock .357 handguns killing 11 worshippers – ranging in age from 54 to 97 – and wounding two others; and also wounding four of the police officers who responded to 911 calls from the scene.
The tragedy – which the Anti-Defamation League said was the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history – devastated both the local Jewish community in Pittsburgh and every Jewish community around the world. In the days following the massacre, vigils and memorial gatherings were held in almost every Jewish community – large and small. Here in Ottawa, a quickly-arranged memorial gathering the next evening filled the Soloway Jewish Community Centre to capacity. The anguish felt by all us present that Sunday night was palpable – and it was no different in other Jewish communities far and near.
The grief that virtually all of us feel over this incident is very personal. Although the murders took place in Pittsburgh, and although most of us didn’t know any of the 11 victims personally, it really could have happened almost anywhere. All of us know people like Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.
Or we understand that there are rarely as many as six degrees of separation in the Jewish world. Dena Libman, who spoke poignantly at the Ottawa gathering was a cousin of Joyce Fienberg – who grew up in Toronto. And Leslie Kaufman, vice-president of corporate services for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, within walking distance of Tree of Life, and knew or knew of some of the victims – or, in some cases, knew their children. Read Leslie’s very moving memories of Squirrel Hill and her reaction to the tragedy at this link.
Yes, this horrible incident could have happened almost anywhere – not just in the United States where so much of the political discourse has become so hateful and where there is such easy and unfettered access to guns.
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, speaking in Israel on November 1, just five days after the Pittsburgh massacre, told the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, “I am sad to say that Jewish people are the religious group in Canada most likely to be targeted for hate crimes – whether vandalism, graffiti, hate propaganda or racist online commentary. Last year, in my own constituency of University-Rosedale in Toronto, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre faced a bomb threat.”
Here in Ottawa, the memories of the anti-Semitic graffiti spree that targeted several synagogues, the Jewish Community Campus, and a home in the Glebe used by a Jewish prayer and study group, two years ago this month, are still strong. And on November 1, less than a week after the Pittsburgh attack, posters reading “It’s okay to be white,” celebrating the racist and anti-Semitic white nationalist movement, were put up in downtown Ottawa.
And in Montreal, police charged a man with making death threats after allegedly writing (in French) that he would “eliminate Jews by killing a whole Jewish girls’ school. That’s not a threat, it’s a promise!” That threat was made on the Facebook page of the Journal de Montréal, the largest-circulation French-language newspaper in Canada, and it remained on the Facebook page for 24 hours before it was removed.
And deadly violence against religious minorities has happened recently in Canada. Last year a gunman entered a mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, where he murdered six worshippers and injured 19 more.
Although Ottawa Police Services Chief Charles Bordeleau, speaking at the Ottawa gathering, reassured the community that there was currently no heightened threat of anti-Semitic violence in the city, the Pittsburgh tragedy and other recent events mentioned here are reminders that all of us must always be vigilant as we go about our daily lives.
Of course, anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon. November is Holocaust Education Month in Ottawa and there are numerous remembrance and educational events that already have and will take place this month marking the Shoah, when six million Jews were murdered, a period that ended only 73 years ago.
During Holocaust Education Month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to rise in the House of Commons on November 7 – a date that falls in between when this issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin goes to press and when it arrives in subscribers’ homes, and a date that falls just before the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht – to offer the government’s apology for Canada’s refusal to admit 937 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on board the MS St. Louis in 1939 (Cuba and the United States also refused to admit the refugees). The ship – the so-called “voyage of the damned” – was forced to return to Europe where 254 of the passengers were ultimately murdered in Nazi death camps. We will have coverage of the apology in the next issue of the Bulletin.
While the 11 anti-Semitic murders in Pittsburgh broke the hearts of all Jews everywhere, they also brought us together. “We are all members of the same family,” Dena Libman reminded us at the Ottawa gathering, where rabbis from all of the Jewish denominations stood and prayed together.
And the murders also showed us we are not alone as we saw support and love expressed by so many other communities. In Pittsburgh, for example, Muslim groups quickly raised the funds needed to pay for the funerals of the Jewish victims.
Yes, as Leslie Kaufman wrote, this has been a time “to mourn, to remember, to take comfort in the kindness of friends and neighbours.”