Pittsburgh synagogue shooting pits faith against bullets

by | Oct 28, 2018 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

The word sanctuary conjures a place of safety. A place where you will not be harmed. In religious terms, it is a place on Earth where you are closest to God.

It was none of that Saturday morning. Not in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, which reportedly housed a tight-knit community of Jewish citizens, whose place of worship, on their Sabbath, became another chapter in a horrible book full of evil men with issues; men who shoot and kill strangers who are praying, then espouse some misguided dedication to keeping America pure.

The latest deranged fool with guns was a 46-year-old man, Robert Bowers, who proudly posted photos of his weapons under the title “My Glock family” but didn’t mind using them to allegedly destroy the real-life families of Jewish people, killing 11, wounding six others.

Bowers called Jews the K-word, which should be abhorred as much as the N-word, multiple times on social media. He blamed Jews for problems in society, which is a tired form of toxic evil that has been going on for centuries, and once ignited a Holocaust. Even when the police apprehended him, Bowers was reportedly still going on about needing to get rid of the Jews.

Bowers also, on social media, claimed that a Jewish-based group was responsible for bringing “invaders in that kill our people.” He was talking about HIAS, an organization more than 130 years old, dedicated to helping Jewish refugees and — more recently — refugees around the world. You’d be hard pressed to find a group that was less dedicated to killing people than this one.

But somehow, in Bowers’ demented mind, the Jews of a suburban Pittsburgh synagogue needed to die for HIAS’ potential sins.

Or so his posts say. Crazy is crazy, and the words of a sick mind like this should only carry so much weight.

The words of a President should carry more.

Sadly, we are coming to ignore those almost as much.

Our President misses the point

Although President Trump properly decried the violence, the leader of the free world (at least that’s what we used to call our Presidents) could not resist adding this response to the situation: “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him.”

Is that really the response to, in the immediate aftermath of, the murder of your citizens? Is that really the soundbite when family members are still finding out who is dead and who is wounded and which bodies of fellow congregants are being tended to in hospitals?

You can pick any day of the week to find something the President says that is embarrassing. But there are select comments that are downright insensitive to the citizens he governs, and at that moment, that comment was one of them.

Here’s a news flash. Not everyone loves the idea of looking up and seeing an armed guard in their place of worship. And where do you stop? Metal detectors? Security on the pulpit?

A synagogue is not an airport. Gun advocates’ suggestion of putting shooters everywhere doesn’t sit well with some folks idea of prayer and reflection. Especially on a weekly basis. Some synagogues have already been forced to secure themselves on High Holidays. But this was just another Sabbath morning in Pittsburgh, including a baby­-naming ceremony. Your first thought is not “We better worry about a maniac shooting us.”

Yes, I know there are some countries where that is mandatory for survival. And perhaps we have reached the point in this country where, if we refuse to make other drastic changes, we have no choice.

But this is not the time for the weary debate over the Second Amendment. This is a time to realize — again — that our anger, our vitriol, our self-righteous madness, is now in fully open season on places of worship.

What happened Saturday in Pittsburgh takes its place alongside the 26 people killed in the First Baptist Church last year in Sutherland Springs, Texas — by another gunman with an assault rifle.

And, in the same year, the seven wounded and one dead in a shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Nashville.

And, in 2015, the nine black worshipers murdered by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, who shot them as they prayed.

There are others. These are just the headlines.

And there are just too many of these headlines.

Why is there so much hatred?

Saturday is believed to rank as the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. Note needs to be taken here. According to the Anti-Defamation League and FBI statistics, in 2016, Jewish people were the victims of more reported hate crimes than any other religious minority. Some 684 anti-Jewish incidents were reported that year. That is more than all the other religiously motivated hate crimes that year combined.

Why is there such hatred for Jews in America? This is a question we should be asking, given the numbers we just cited, we should be asking it every bit as much as why there is racism and sexism, two issues that are debated endlessly every day.

Why people of a certain faith? What is behind this? The Pittsburgh gunman’s ridiculous postings aren’t worthy of serious debate. But the general animus behind his antisemitism is.

Maybe we will get some of that now. Maybe we won’t. Maybe this devolves into a gun debate like so many other murders like this have. But it shouldn’t. There is a serious bubbling of hate in American society against a religion that has never caused it harm. It is beyond misguided. It is evil. And when it strikes it is the ugliest part of us.

In the Jewish faith, the ancient scrolls of the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament, are read from beginning to end every year, then started over again in an autumn holiday called Simchat Torah.

That holiday came a few weeks ago, which meant the early Bible story of Cain and Abel was recently read. If you recall, after Cain murders Abel, God asks him, “Where is your brother?” And Cain’s famous reply is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer is yes. We are all our brother’s keepers. But we often do a poor job of it. And on mornings like Saturday, a Sabbath in Pittsburgh, some of us are no better than Cain, killing our fellow citizens while they are in mid-prayer in a place they should always be able to think of as safe.

Sanctuary. What has happened to that word?

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    It is sad that these killers have so much hate inside them. I try not to label people with a religion or nationality. I just look at people as people and not of a certain gr0up. One isn’t any better than the other in my view. It is disturbing though. Everyone wants to feel safe no matter where you are and in a church or place of worship you never think of anything happening. A persons guard is down and so these attackers do just that when your guard is down. We know that everything happens for a reason we may not see it at the time but someday it will become clearer why. I hope that your day and your book tour goes well.
    Take Care.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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