A gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday, leaving 11 people dead, six others injured and Jews across the nation stunned and on edge over one of the worst attacks against the American Jewish community in decades.
In light of Saturday’s massacre concern about safety at synagogues in Kingsbridge, Fieldston, Van Cortlandt Village and beyond is high, especially since it’s been less than a decade since two local synagogues — the Riverdale Temple and Riverdale Jewish Center — reportedly were targets of an alleged bomb plot themselves.
“Jews living in America and around the world always experience some sense of vulnerability, along with the sense of security and participation in every place where we live,” said Steven Exler, rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
The news of the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue shocked Exler, but at the same time aligns with “rising waves of anti-Semitism” the country has experienced in the last few years, he said, “even though it’s a horror and something that no human being should ever do to any other.”
Yet, the shooting also incited a sense of resolve, resilience and a desire to reach out and support those whom Exler describes as friends and family in Pittsburgh.
“Like every tragedy that impacts the Jewish community — and impacts any community of faith,” he said, “our response is to try to gather, to pray and to help.”
After the Sabbath ended Saturday night, more than 200 people from HIR and other local synagogues gathered at the Bayit to recite Psalms, sing peace songs, and offer words of comfort and strength, Exler said. But they also reflected on the fact the Tree of Life Synagogue was home to a range of prayer communities, open to all, much like the Bayit.
A climate of heightened fear now challenges that.
“Even as we are always reevaluating our security protocols, making sure that our communities and our synagogues are as safe as they can be, we’re also trying not to become so locked down that we can’t be welcoming to all,” Exler said.
“That’s the tightrope that I feel especially strongly this week.”
Rabbi Thomas Gardner was shocked by last Saturday’s hate-fueled violence, but it’s not as though it came out of nowhere, the Riverdale Temple leader said, especially given recent history including the Dylan Roof slaying of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church in 2015, and the murder of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the following year.
The Pittsburgh shooting, however, had a more visceral effect on local Jews.
“It was like a punch in the gut for a lot of people,” Gardner said. “Even though, of course, we were terribly affected by the shooting in Charleston, still, this felt so much more personal for a lot of people.”
While the temple is rethinking and improving security, Gardner said there’s still no fail-proof method to prevent hate from exploding into violence.
“No security can keep every bad person out without also keeping every good person out,” he said. “Our motto at Riverdale Temple is ‘open hearts, open minds.’ We don’t want to have at the same time closed doors. Even if we had police standing at the door 24 hours a day, you couldn’t keep out every single possible attack.”
Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn was attending her son’s wedding, celebrating two lives coming together as one, when she heard the news about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
“There is no playbook for this,” said the Congregation Tehillah leader. “All we can do is stand together. I think we just want to be flesh-to-flesh, hold one another and weep together.”
That’s exactly what she and others, including Manhattan College Holocaust center director Mehnaz Afridi, did Tuesday night at the Riverdale Monument. Still, the rabbi said, there must be a time when such gatherings in the middle of the community no longer need to take place.
“We have been coming to the monument way too much in solidarity for others who have been killed,” Shriner-Cahn said. “It’s just too much, and too painful. We cannot be brought down by fear.”
Yet, while Shriner-Cahn was deeply saddened by Saturday’s massacre, she wasn’t surprised.
“I’ve always believed that anti-Semitism was here,” she said. “Sometimes it’s apparent, and sometimes it’s hidden. What was always there is once more revealed.”
Shriner-Cahn wouldn’t describe herself as a woman of politics, but rather as a woman of faith in humanity. Her parents escaped anti-Semitism in Europe decades ago, finding refuge in China before making their way to the United States.
Years later, synagogues and churches are being guarded by police officers because that hatred still exists.
“We’re living in times where people are being set against one another,” Shriner-Cahn said. “Fear has been weaponized. Fear of the other — and you can fill in the blank — means that we’ve forgotten that we are all in this together.”
Anti-Semitism in a traditional sense traces back thousands of years, said Frederick Schweitzer, professor emeritus of history at Manhattan College.
“The inference that anti-Semites and their followers draw is that the real solution is to destroy the Jews, to get rid of them once and for all,” Schweitzer said.
The fact such ideas are resurfacing now — while deeply disturbing and beyond chilling to many — doesn’t shock Schweitzer, given Trump’s role as “a catalyst with verbiage attacking the press, attacking groups that oppose him.”
“I’m afraid it will get worse,” Schweitzer added. “These things are contagious. One example inspires others to do the same and to do worse on a bigger scale.”
If there’s an answer to what many view as a terrifying wave of anti-Semitism, what seems to unite local rabbis is their professed faith in, well, solidarity.
“We have stood together with our brothers and sisters in faith and other faith communities when there have been shootings in churches and other places,” Exler said. “One of the most comforting things was not just the gathering of the Jewish community on Saturday night, but the messages we got from our co-clergy of other faiths.
“That gives us a lot of hope and a lot of faith that we always stand with each other. That an attack on one house of worship is an attack on all of our faiths.”