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A Moral Crisis 

Jewish leaders reflect on the recent attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue

click to enlarge Hundreds gathered last week at a vigil after the deadly shooting in Pittsburgh.

Scott Elmquist

Hundreds gathered last week at a vigil after the deadly shooting in Pittsburgh. 

Anti-Semitism isn't new to Rabbi Dovid Asher. He recalls visiting an amusement park as a young teenager and locking eyes with a stranger who took in his yarmulke and flipped him a swift, demonstrative middle finger. The experience was shocking and traumatic, he says, but stories passed down in his family were more impactful.

His grandmother made it out of Nazi Germany right before Kristallnacht in 1938. Tickets for passage to America were limited, and Asher says his grandmother always felt responsible for the death of her younger sister, who later died in Auschwitz.

"Just hearing my grandmother's stories, seeing the pain she was going through and thinking of her sister's murder in Auschwitz, that's all I ever needed in terms of understanding the evil of anti-semitism," Asher says. "I think she'd be beside herself, seeing how anti-Semitism has kind of risen again, when not so long ago it terrorized the Jewish community worldwide."

Like religious leaders across the country, Asher has spent the last week reflecting on the Oct. 27 shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, which left 11 dead and several more injured. He was one of several Jewish clergy at a vigil in Richmond three days after the shooting, which more than 1,000 people attended. Asher, who grew up in Pennsylvania and came to Richmond in 2011 to lead the congregation at Keneseth Beth Israel, is careful and intentional with his words. He's hesitant to politicize the attack and its aftermath, partially in recognition of shiva, the week-long period of mourning in Jewish culture. During those first seven days, it's customary for observant Jews to sit with their grief and allow themselves to experience the pain in its entirety.

"I think we need to celebrate the lives and to appreciate the pain of the families," Asher says. "I think we need to wait a little bit before we publicly come out and have this conversation." That said, Asher is "terribly concerned about the polarization of this country" and wants to see more unification efforts from elected officials.

Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El, who was named one of Style Weekly's Top 40 Under 40 in 2017, echoes that sentiment, and is more forthcoming on the political front. Like his colleague across town, he's mindful that his congregation represents both ends of the political spectrum and his job is not one of a pundit. But mixed in with sadness and grief following the shooting is also anger and frustration with a climate that he says has emboldened people with hateful ideologies.

"It's really hard for me to separate what happened in Pittsburgh from what happened in Charlottesville last summer," Knopf explains. "In particular what happened when the president responded the way he did. White supremacists in this country had never had a bigger gift and endorsement than that."

That gift, he says, has long-lasting ramifications. The president's rhetoric around immigrants has normalized bigotry and white nationalism, he says, and it's no coincidence that the shooting happened days after known foes of the president received suspicious packages in the mail, or during a time of charged rhetoric around a group of immigrants heading toward the southern border. It's about more than discrimination against people of the Jewish faith, he says.

"It's all interconnected, and it stems from a really ugly campaign of vilifying anyone who could be perceived as other," he says. "We need to stand up for all targeted communities."

Safety is a priority for both rabbis, and there's frustration around the reality that they have to balance keeping their congregants safe without negatively impacting the quality of their work and services.

"We need to be vigilant of our security, but at the same time I want my congregation to be able to be open and welcoming to anybody who wants to experience the joy and beauty of Judaism with us," Knopf says. "It's harder to do that when you have to have an armed guard outside the door."

Both Knopf and Asher note that armed security guards are on the premises during services at their synagogues.

"What that means is we're effectively letting violent anti-Semites rob us of our ability to serve our community in other ways because we have to use those resources to pay for security," Knopf says.

Jewish Family Services' chief operating officer, Sydney Fleischer, says she feels safe as a Jew in Richmond, and it's important to prioritize security and have these discussions while still moving forward. She describes feeling lost and helpless on the day of the shooting.

"It's just stunning, and at first you feel like, 'How can I possibly do anything,'" she says. "Then you realize that any little thing you do matters. One of the Jewish values is that if you save one person you save the world."

As a clinical social worker, Fleischer advises people to talk through whatever they're feeling after a traumatic event, especially parents. It's not easy to tell a child of any age that hatred exists, she says, and a parent may never be able to adequately explain why someone may hate another person who's Jewish. That's why it's crucial to have open discussions and to "highlight the positive," leading by example and teaching diversity and inclusivity from a young age.

For more resources, Fleischer suggests checking out the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies at networkjhsa.org. Templates are available for writing letters to the bereaved in Pittsburgh, along with links to organizations accepting donations on behalf of the community. S

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