My Jewish wedding was the day of the Tree of Life killings. On the first anniversary, a reflection of what’s happened to our community — both our pain and our strength.
PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — Can you remember the last time politics intruded on your personal life? One of those ruptures, when what’s happening Out There is so big that you feel like you have to put your own life on hold?
I can remember mine. It was October 27, 2018 — my wedding day.
Hours before I was supposed to head to a farm in rural Virginia and stand under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, my rabbi took me aside and quietly told me that something had happened in Pittsburgh. A shooter had entered the Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 Jews as they prayed — what we now know to be the worst mass killing of Jews in American history. I stood in my rabbi’s hotel room, putting on my wedding suit, transfixed by the TV while news of the massacre rolled in.
As my wife and I near our first anniversary, the American Jewish community is getting ready to mark one of the darkest days in our history. In Pittsburgh, where I’ve been meeting with Jewish community members and activists to discuss the shooting and its fallout, people are still in mourning.
In Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood where the attack took place, its effects are palpable. The Tree of Life synagogue is closed, the entrance blocked off by fencing and a temporary memorial. Storefronts on Murray Avenue, a major thoroughfare, are dotted with signs commemorating the attack. “It’s changed the whole community,” Baila Cohen, a co-owner of the Squirrel Hill business Pinskers Books and Judaica, tells me.
Reflecting on the national Jewish experience, she sees psychic damage. “It’s a lot more vulnerable feeling now than it ever was,” Cohen says, worriedly.
We have good reason to feel this way. After the Pittsburgh massacre, there were shootings at two more American synagogues: one in Poway, California, and another in Miami. There’s been an epidemic of physical assaults on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. The number of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide, ranging from violence to swastika graffiti on synagogues and on campuses, has been at historic highs for two straight years. The president of the United States broadcasts anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on his Twitter feed and accuses Jews that don’t support him of “great disloyalty” to Israel.
My conversations with Jewish leaders, scholars, and citizens reveal that many of us have been shaken to our core by these events. Traumatized by a long history of persecution, Jews are acutely aware of how vulnerable we are, given our tiny numbers. We are not close to abandoning America, but we are closer to feeling like America could abandon us.
But this fear is coupled with a renewed sense of Jewish purpose and identity, a sense of threat serving not to quiet Jews but galvanize them. In my experience, the Jews most unsettled by the year of anti-Semitic carnage have grown closer to their community as a result, becoming even more committed to their Jewish identity than they were before.
The American Jewish community is hardly monolithic and, as such, this revival has taken many forms. I’m inspired by the surge in activists uniting Jewish causes with those of other marginalized American groups, a callback to the civil rights era that connects Jews not only with each other but other communities threatened by the rise of the violent far right. I’ve also been frustrated with the vocal efforts by some Jews to use the post-Pittsburgh moment to push hardline defenses of Israel, or to paint a false equivalence between anti-Semitism on the American left and right.
But these divergent reactions, along with many others, speak to something deeper and unequivocally good — a growing consensus on the importance of asserting oneself as a Jew in personal and public life. We are in the midst of an acute reemergence of the American Jewish self-understanding as a minority, with all the sense of insecurity and collective purpose that status entails.
At this moment, there is a core sentiment uniting anti-Zionist leftists in Brooklyn with ultra-Orthodox Trump supporters in, uh, Brooklyn: We may be scared by the rise in anti-Semitism, worried for our communities and families in a way we’ve never been before, but we’ll be damned if we let it scare us out of being Jews.
The shadow of fear over American Jewry
Since the Pittsburgh shooting, I’ve started to do some things in synagogue that I’ve never done before.
In the chapel where my shul holds its Friday night services, the doors are generally kept open. It’s a welcoming sign, an invitation for anyone who wishes to join us to enter. But now my eyes keep flicking toward those open doors. I feel a need to keep watch.
My mind tends to wander during prayer, and I find myself thinking less about the liturgy, my family, or the other things you’re supposed to reflect on. Instead, I wonder how I’d react if I spotted a shooter — the best way to protect my wife, my parents, and the other people who attend services with me. Should I try to rush the shooter? Should I hide with my loved ones under the seats? Should I try to distract the killer so that more of the congregation can escape?
This isn’t entirely paranoia. The week before I went on my trip to Pittsburgh, our synagogue informed the congregation by email that it had been vandalized, that “hateful” graffiti had been scrawled on our holy building. The police have a suspect in custody; as of right now, there’s no reason to believe that we’re facing a specific threat of violence. Regardless, the general sense of threat lingers.
American Jews aren’t used to having to worry like this. The most comparable spate of attacks to the present violence came in late 1957 and 1958, when white supremacists bombed or attempted to bomb eight American synagogues. The attacks, largely targeting Southern congregations, were both retaliation for disproportionate Jewish participation in the civil rights movement and pure acts of anti-Semitic hatred.
No one died in these bombings. The most damaging explosion, which hit The Temple in Atlanta, went off around 3:30 am — devastating the synagogue building but causing no casualties. But the attack on The Temple, together with the other bombings, set off a wave of panic among American Jews, a group that included many Holocaust survivors less than 15 years removed from the camps.
The Holocaust’s scars on our collective consciousness remain today. Those Jews who have survivors in their families (myself included) have a vivid understanding of the Shoah; our religious schools devote extensive time to ensuring that its memory is not lost. Many of us can recite the story of Weimar-era Judaism as a cautionary tale — an assimilated community, well-established in German civic culture, that could not see what was coming for them until it was too late. When Americans Jews hear about attacks on our community, the gas chambers are never far from our thoughts.
“We raised a generation on the Holocaust,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “Naturally, that’s what they’re going to think about.”
Now, with murderous anti-Semites attacking synagogues; the alt-right and 4chan trolling and threatening prominent Jews; and a president who declared there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the sense of unease has grown into existential dread. An American Jewish Committee poll released in October found that 84 percent of American Jews believed anti-Semitism has increased “a lot” or “somewhat” in the past five years. In a separate survey from the Jewish Electoral Institute, 60 percent said President Trump bears at least some responsibility for the Pittsburgh attack.
Few think we’re in Weimar America, with state-sponsored murder just a few years down the road. But the fear that It Can Happen Here, that America might turn against the Jews as Europe did, can’t be so easily dismissed anymore. The popular Jewish faith in America, an idealized vision of a new nation immune to European-style anti-Semitism, has been at least temporarily shaken.
“When I went into the rabbinate 30 years ago, I really thought [anti-Semitism] was my father’s concern — that it’s not going to be my concern. Boy, was I mistaken,” says Rabbi David Wolpe, the senior clergyman at Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple.
Synagogues have been forced to beef up security; armed police patrolling holy ground is a physical manifestation of newfound Jewish precarity — one that particularly unsettles those Jews of color whose relationship with the police is uneasy at best. Understanding the nature of anti-Semitism has shot to the top of the communal agenda; it has become a source of everyday fear rather than historical mourning. Deborah Lipstadt, a historian of the Holocaust at Emory University, tells me that she’s used to scant attendance at her lectures. But since Pittsburgh, she says, she’s “never seen such crowds.”
Modern Jewish life in America is premised on an unusual duality. On the one hand, we are a historically persecuted minority, imbued with a deep post-Holocaust sense of insecurity. On the other hand, the average Jew enjoys tremendous privilege in America — we are typically wealthier than the average Americans, and overrepresented in nearly every prestigious career and industry. This is a testament to how safe the United States has been for us.
The Tree of Life shooting has reoriented the way many Jews see our community’s place here. We have been reminded that we are targets of persistent hatred who may never win unconditional acceptance in white Christian America.
Anti-black racism and anti-Semitism are different in all sorts of important ways. But they’re similar in one key way: Both are structural forces, written into our society’s source code in ways that allow them to persist and take different forms through different historical periods.
As Jews come to grips with this reality after Pittsburgh, the current generation is looking at our synagogue doors in a way we’ve been fortunate to largely avoid until now: through the wary eyes of the newly persecuted.
How Jews are fighting back
My synagogue belongs to the Reform Jewish movement, the most popular of the three major denominations in the United States and the most theologically liberal. Reform Judaism’s inclusive vision, one that emphasizes the social justice ideal of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), has been evident for years in our community’s observance and politics. One of my favorite annual events is our Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat, a joint service with local mosques and black churches that centers our three communities’ shared battles against oppression.
Since Trump’s election, much of this activism has focused on immigration. My synagogue sponsored a refugee family to enter the United States, and it sent a contingent to a “Close the Camps” protest against the administration’s detention policy. This sort of activity is what motivated the Pittsburgh shooter: He was a white supremacist who wrote, in a social media post explaining his motivation for the attack, that Jews were bringing in “invaders that kill our people.”
As such, our synagogue’s traditional work has taken on a particularly defiant tone in the past year. We will not be cowed by a killer; we will double down on the kind of activism that we believe our tradition requires.
We are not alone. In the past year, Jews have become even more visible in the public square, advocating at once for the rights of others and our own place in America. The renewed level of Jewish attention to our vulnerable status, to the ineradicable truth of what it means to be a historically persecuted minority is leading many Jews to rally behind one another, asserting our right to be in America in inspiring ways.
This is particularly visible among Jewish left-wing activists. The Jewish left has been growing in strength since the beginning of the Trump administration but, in the year since Pittsburgh, it seems to have quickened the pace — and the specifically Jewish character of this activist work has deepened and intensified.
“In leftist politics more broadly, Jews and non-Jews alike have been realizing that Jews are also being clearly targeted here,” says Sophie Ellman-Golan, a New York-based organizer who’s currently working on a project highlighting anti-Semitism in the GOP. “Jews who have maybe been organizing, but who haven’t been organizing around anti-Semitism or specifically Jewish issues, all of a sudden have an increasing awareness that we need to be doing that.”
Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish activist group, organized a march against President Donald Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh shortly after the attack. According to Bend the Arc’s internal numbers, its base of supporters (defined by email list subscribers, donors, and people who participated in its actions) grew by 60,000 in that week alone — a roughly 66 percent increase.
The energy has not entirely abated, at least in Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, Bend the Arc protesters again blockaded a road and disrupted a speech President Trump was giving to a conference on fracking downtown (that this event had nothing to do with the attack’s anniversary was its own kind of insult). The confrontational action reflected their anger with Trump’s handling of last year’s shooting and rising white nationalism more broadly.
“We wanted to be, specifically, defiant,” Tammy Hepps, an activist arrested for participating in the road closure, explained to me over coffee at a Squirrel Hill shop after she was released. “That’s how we’re feeling a year later.”
The Jewish community is not entirely united on how to act in this moment (nor about much of anything else, for that matter). More traditional and conservative Jewish voices, including New York Times columnist and Pittsburgh native Bari Weiss, have taken an entirely different perspective. What they see as anti-Semitism on the left, exemplified by a handful of insensitive comments about Israel and its relationship with the US from Rep. Ilhan Omar, is in their view as serious a problem as anti-Semitism on the right.
For Jews like Weiss, the primary lesson after Pittsburgh is not that Jews share the same interests as other minority groups or the political left, but rather that anti-Semitism is a disease that afflicts all groups in distinctive ways. For this reason, Jews should be particularly sensitive to it among their political allies. Liberal Jews “must fight the anti-Semitism on [their] own side,” as Weiss puts it in her recent book, How To Fight Anti-Semitism.
I agree with part of this: Hatred of Jews should indeed be called out even when it’s not politically convenient, and it certainly not the exclusive province of any one faction or ideology. The situation in Britain, where 85 percent of Jews perceive “high” levels of anti-Semitism in the center-left Labour Party, is a testament to that disturbing reality. But the Democratic Party is not the Labour Party, and America is not Britain. In this country, left-wing anti-Semitism is a relatively marginal phenomenon compared to its right-wing twin.
It’s people on the far right who are killing American Jews while they pray. An Anti-Defamation League report released last week found that 12 white supremacists have been arrested since the Pittsburgh attack “for their alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community specifically.” There were only three arrests detailed in the report that did not involve white supremacists; none of those suspects was motivated by left-wing ideology.
Omar’s comments were met with harsh criticism from fellow Democrats (she eventually apologized for some of them); President Donald Trump’s fevered speculations about Jewish billionaire George Soros importing non-white immigrants are echoed by much of his party. The new Jewish understanding of our minority status reflects a correct assessment, particularly among younger Jews, that there is a fundamental asymmetry in the nature of American anti-Semitism.
In some ways, the very fact of this debate — that Jews are arguing so loudly about who the real threats are, and how our community should best organize in response to them — is indicative of a deeper, even more encouraging Jewish truth: that Jews seem to be more deeply engaging in American life as Jews. The Pittsburgh shooter’s attempt to unsettle us has backfired.
“Whether we will one day look back and say Pittsburgh helped to spark a revitalization movement is too early to know. But it would not be unprecedented,” Sarna, the Brandeis historian, tells me. “Historically, rising anti-Semitism has the paradoxical effect of strengthening Jewish identity.”
Jews do not let anti-Semites set the terms for our lives. We grow closer to our tradition to show that it’s ours, not theirs; every Shabbat candle lit, every Jewish protest organized, is an act of defiance.
Samuel Schachner, the president of Tree of Life, was mere blocks from the synagogue, walking to services with his children, when the shooter opened fire last year. But he has spent the past year, which he calls “one of the most difficult of my life,” sustaining the congregation and rebuilding it.
They have held services in various houses of worship around the city, ensuring the killer couldn’t put a stop to their prayer. With donor support, he plans to construct a new building to house Tree of Life — and turn the old one into a center for Jewish life, including a permanent memorial to the 11 people killed last year.
The outpouring of support for his community has lifted him through the difficulty, he says. “I’ve never felt better as a Jewish American,” he tells me.
One year ago, I was transfixed by the news of what had happened to Schachner’s congregation. But I could not and did not grant the Pittsburgh shooter the victory of ruining a Jewish celebration.
My most enduring Jewish memories from my wedding day will not be watching TV coverage of Pittsburgh. It will be standing under the chuppah with my wife: signing our ketubah, hearing our friends recite the seven blessings, and being lifted in chairs on the dance floor. That day, we chose to be defined by Jewish life rather than Jewish death — and, too, does American Jewry as a whole.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers political ideology and global politics. He also hosts Worldly, Vox’s podcast on foreign policy and international relations. He grew up in Washington, DC, where he currently lives with his wife and two (rescue) dogs.
Author: Zack Beauchamp