From Pittsburgh to Poway, here’s how communities can rise above the hate
On the cold, rainy evening of April 27, more than 100 Pittsburghers gathered for an impromptu vigil in Squirrel Hill in front of the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue building. We weren’t there because it was the six-month anniversary of the shooting that killed 11 Jewish people and wounded six others a few yards from where we were standing. Rather, hours earlier, for the second time in the United States in exactly six months, a gunman murdered Jews on Shabbat — this time at Chabad of Poway.
As the vigil came to a close, I noticed my friend Rev. Liddy Barlow, a local interfaith leader, standing near the back of the crowd.
“We just gathered for Sri Lanka on Wednesday,” I said, giving her a hug.
“I know,” she responded quietly. Save the days and weeks immediately following the massacre in Pittsburgh, I’d never seen her that angry.
It’s an all-too-large and rapidly growing fraternity of diverse communities that have been targeted by violent extremists in both the U.S. and abroad. In Poway and Pittsburgh, we were attacked because we are Jewish. In 2012 it was a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2015 it was a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2016 it was an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In 2017 it was a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. More recently, there were the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooting at Chabad of Poway could have and has been any of us.
So where do we go from here?
First of all, while most San Diegans and Pittsburghers are back to business as usual, for many Jewish people in San Diego County, Pittsburgh and throughout the country, life will never be the same. Many of us closely and constantly monitor the doors whenever we are inside a synagogue or other Jewish space. Every individual handles trauma differently. After the shooting in Pittsburgh, it was estimated that as many as 30 percent of our community would need to seek help from a mental health professional. Additionally, in Parkland, Florida, two survivors committed suicide about a year after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It may be months before friends and loved ones show signs of trauma. Be vigilant, check in with the people you care about and recognize that sometimes those who seem the least in need of help may be the most vulnerable.
Secondly, when discussing gun violence prevention — or for that matter any other topic — let’s find the commonality among each other and start from there. We can disagree on how to interpret the Second Amendment, what comprehensive background checks for owning firearms should or shouldn’t look like, and whether or not private citizens should have access to automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Regardless of what side of the debate we land on, no one wants to see a repeat of what happened at Chabad of Poway. Remember that.
Thirdly, ongoing and meaningful dialogue between people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities is a must. It’s a lot harder to hate or fear someone once you get to know them. Locally, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council is uniquely equipped to represent the Jewish community in that space. Take advantage of us as a resource.
Lastly, extremists targeting religious communities with gun violence is not a problem we will solve overnight. As we address the issue, we need to make sure our nonprofits and religious institutions are safe and secure.
It is particularly complicated for houses of worship to maintain an open and welcoming environment that is also appropriately safe, and there are vast cultural differences between synagogues, mosques and churches on the best way to achieve that goal. CRC is working on two legislative initiatives in Harrisburg that would not only secure state funding to help us protect our Jewish communal institutions in Southwestern Pennsylvania, but also would provide grant funding for community, religious and nonprofit institutions throughout Pennsylvania to do the same.
Pittsburgh and Poway are far from the only communities targeted by violent hate. We will not fix this problem unless all of our diverse communities overlook our differences, share resources and stand together in solidarity. Why wait? pjc
A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on June 2, 2019. Josh Sayles, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, visited San Diego June 5-7 to provide support to the Jewish community there and to speak at a forum about combating hate and bigotry.