Rabbi: 'Incredible feeling of unity' among the Jewish people after Pittsburgh massacre

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
A memorial of flowers and stars line the sidewalk outside the Tree of Life Synagogue Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in remembrance of 11 people killed when a shooter opened fire during services Saturday, Oct. 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The deadly anti-Semitic attack on worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over the weekend affected Jewish people all over the world, and the attack hit especially close to home for Rabbi Elazar Green.

Green serves the Jewish community at Rohr Chabad Jewish Center in Lancaster, which has a satellite office in York City, but he grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the Saturday, Oct. 27, shooting took place.

"My parents recognized their names," he said of the victims.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Saturday, Robert Bowers, 46, allegedly entered the synagogue and began shooting. Police say he killed 11 people and wounded six others, including four police officers, before law enforcement shot and apprehended him.

Bowers has been charged with dozens of state and federal crimes, including homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. He appeared in federal court on Monday, Oct. 29.

Green said that right now, there is an incredible feeling of unity among the Jewish people.

"Wherever you are, in Lancaster, in Pittsburgh, across the country, people are doing good deeds to honor and memorialize the souls that lost their lives," he said. "That is really the focus that I’m in right now."

Flowers and a card sit propped against an entryway at Temple Beth Israel in York, Monday, October 29, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

'Make it better': The Rev. Christopher Rodkey, pastor at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Dallastown, said he threw out his original sermon Sunday and instead opened up the floor for parishioners to speak. He said the statements varied from lament to anger but that nobody veered into the political. 

"I was very moved by the things I heard people say," he said. "The general ethos is that this is not the world we want to live in, and we need to make it better."

Rodkey said anti-Semitism is a huge part of Western and Christian history, and that although the ideology may change and morph, it remains the same at its core.

He said he's found that many people are surprised to learn that anti-Semitism is still very much a problem in contemporary society.

Rodkey is one of several organizers of a Monday night vigil in downtown York City, which he said is about standing in solidarity with Jewish friends and neighbors and standing in solidarity with the law-enforcement community.

More:Vigil Against Hate planned Monday in York City

More:EDITORIAL: Dallastown pastor uses sign to display true meaning of being Christian

Local synagogue: On Monday at Temple Beth Israel, in York Township, a single bouquet of flowers had been placed at the foot of a side door, with a card addressed to the congregation.

A local police patrol car circled the parking lot and observed for several minutes.

Anita Smith, 81, of Spring Garden Township, and Mary Scarda, 76, of Springfield Township, were standing in the parking lot of the synagogue, which is next door to the Jewish Community Center.

Smith and Scarda are not Jewish, but they've both attended fitness classes at the JCC for more than 20 years, and they said people from all backgrounds participate in programs at the center.

Smith said the shooting was a terrible thing that's affected the community.

Social media: Major media outlets and pundits have put a significant portion of blame for the shooting on Gab.com, a social media site created in 2016 with the stated mission of eschewing censorship and defending freedom of speech. With the exception of illegal content and explicit calls for violence, the site does not ban or censor users.

More:EDITORIAL: Hateful rhetoric helps ignite lethal actions

More:Gab.com is taken down after synagogue shooting

Bowers had a Gab account where he regularly posted anti-Semitic statements.

Shortly before entering the synagogue on Saturday, Bowers posted about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the role he believed it was playing in a migrant caravan currently traveling toward the southern border of the United States.

This image shows a portion of an archived webpage from the social media website Gab, with a Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 posting by Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers. HIAS, mentioned in the posting, is a Maryland-based nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. (AP Photo)

In a Tweet posted around 10 a.m. Monday, the official Gab.com Twitter account said the company has been working closely with the FBI and the Department of Justice to provide them with all of the information regarding Bowers' account, and the website is currently offline.

Rodkey said he thinks communities need to call on individuals to take responsibility for their words.

"I completely believe in freedom of speech," Rodkey said. "I also believe that we need to be responsible for our speech."

Rodkey said social media is a complex issue because platforms are private companies, and they have the right to say what’s acceptable and not acceptable on their platform.

Businesses, country clubs, schools, fraternal organizations and other social spheres have some influence over the language and behavior of those within their groups, Rodkey said, and those groups can make it clear that they don't support anti-Semitic ideas or any other hateful ideology.

"It’s going to raise the standard that this is what we expect in our community and in our business doings, making very clear that this is part of who we are and how we expect to treat other people," Rodkey said.

Threats: Green said he can't say for sure whether he's seen a rise in anti-Semitism recently, because there have been threats and incidents of vandalism at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center from the time it opened 13 years ago.

Just last week, he said, one of the center's windows was broken, but he added that it's hard to say if it was an anti-Semitic act or if it was just vandalism, because there were no notes or insignia left.

This photo shows some of Stars of David with names of those killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in Saturday's shooting, at a memorial outside the synagogue, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Green declined to comment on the political and ideological discussions surrounding the shooting, and he said right now he's focused on honoring and remembering the 11 people who lost their lives.

"You want to talk about Gab or gun control, come back in a few months," Green said. "For me, at least, it’s still too fresh and too raw to start thinking about these other details."

The York JCC was targeted with a bomb threat in early 2017 in a spate of similar threats against Jewish centers and schools in 11 states.

More:York JCC evacuated in latest spate of threats

In the mid-1990s, the conservative Ohev Sholom Congregation, which holds services at Temple Beth Israel, was the target of "ethnic intimidation" when a person hung a severed pig's head on its door.

Marakay Rogers, solicitor for the York City Human Relations Commission, said the city doesn't have a large Jewish population, and she's not aware of any anti-Semitic hate crimes or incidents within the city recently.