By Ellen McGirt
Updated: October 30, 2018 10:55 AM ET | Originally published: October 29, 2018

Among the murdered were two inseparable brothers. A young-at-heart grandmother approaching the century mark. A groundbreaking physician who treated early AIDS patients with tenderness and respect. A loving couple married at their synagogue in 1956. All of them cherished, loving, loved and part of a close-knit community that once called Fred Rogers their neighbor.

In what is believed to be the worst attack on Jewish people in the U.S., eleven people were killed on Saturday when a gunman entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire on those inside. Six more were injured in the attack, including two police officers and two SWAT officers who confronted the attacker and interrupted his escape.

It is believed that Robert Bowers, 46, had been a frequent poster of anti-Semitic hate speech on Gab, a social network known for its lax content rules. But it was the now-famous caravan of Honduran asylum-seekers traveling toward the US that seems to have pushed him over the edge.

A caravan of desperate people, still thousands of miles away, shrinking by the day, a tragedy of an altogether different sort.

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer provides a clear analysis of the political and media hype that made the caravan famous; he argues that the current Administration’s use of this false menace as a mid-term election cudgel had, instead, inflamed an already hate-filled man to deadly action.

“Trump falsely told his supporters that there were “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” in the caravan, a claim that had no basis in fact, which was meant to imply that terrorists were hiding in the caravan—one falsehood placed upon another,” he writes. “In the right-wing fever swamps, where the president’s every word is worshipped, commenters began amplifying Trump’s exhortations with new details.”

The organization Bowers singled out for his ire was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, the organization that helped six-year-old future Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his family escape anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

“Screw your optics, I’m going in,” the alleged shooter posted on Gab before he burst into the temple with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle. To the SWAT officers who cornered him, he screamed he wanted “all Jews to die.”

A congregation of devout people, just minutes from their home, murdered for their faith, a tragedy of an altogether familiar sort.

“The Jewish community is feeling incredibly vulnerable and scared. Part of it is the knowledge that it could have been any one of us,” Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St Louis tells raceAhead.

She notes that immigration reform and refugee advocacy has always been part of Jewish life, and a particular priority for her work in the last two years. “It’s part of the horror that [the killer] understood that yes, this is our identity, it’s not a stereotype he created,” she says. “We are so closely intertwined with the refugee experience and we stand on the front line to advocate for refugees and new Americans.”

It’s part of Neiss’s job to create inter-faith and inter-community alliances, so I asked her for some advice on how allies can show support in the aftermath of the shooting.

“When people are vulnerable this way, it’s a feeling of being isolated,” she said. What people can do is to send an actual message to them that they are not alone. Reach out, touch base, stand up, show up. “It seems simple, but people take it for granted.”

“This is not one incident. We have the memory of the many times when our community was targeted by people in power, the police, and the government themselves,” she says. “We know those things are able to happen when you have a population of people who let that happen. Having other communities—leaders and individuals—speak up means that there may be one person filled with hate, but this is not systemic and we are standing with you.”

We closed by talking about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, a notion that had imprinted on me as a child. (Diverse communities for the win.) “It literally means repairing the world,” she says. When G-d created the world it was inherently incomplete. “We get to be partners with each other and G-d to work toward the completion, the perfection of the world.”

You don’t have to be Jewish to see its simple beauty. “The love you put out, the hate you put out is all part of your contribution,” she says. “We can all work toward perfecting the world whether we believe or not.”


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