New Jersey’s Jewish community mourns Pittsburgh synagogue victims

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of B’Nai Jeshurun in Short Hills says hundreds of people from his congregation came together on Sunday to pray in mourning and in healing after the tragic shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue claimed 11 lives. Among the dead, a husband and wife, a 97-year-old woman and two brothers.

“I’ve told people to take their Jewish stars from under their shirts and wear it above their shirts and to be very proud about who they are. And I’ve reminded them holocaust survivors have always told me that their deaths would be in vain if we allow bigotry and we allow prejudice to go unchecked. So we will stand up loud and with conviction to protect us, but all people who experience hate,” he said.

On Sunday at Livingston’s B’Nai Abraham, Gov. Phil Murphy told a room of 2,000 people how he had just visited Yad Vasham, the world holocaust remembrance center in Israel.

He said, “Little did we know that not even a week later we would be overwhelmed with the news that American Jews were senselessly murdered in their own sanctuary by a man who possessed the same hateful thoughts as those who devised and carried out the Holocaust.”

“It breaks the Jewish collective heart and our spirit because we are small and really connected to one another,” Gewirtz

According to the Anti-Defamation League the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States has gone up by 57 percent in 2017. That’s the largest single-year increase on record. The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses.

“It’s just sort of unfathomable that in 2018 someone actually walks into a place where people are just expressing their faith and they die for those principals. It’s just surreal,” Gewirtz said.

The shooting took place on Shabbat — a time to focus on family, community and prayer. Gewirtz read some of the Torah portion from last week which was about Abraham and how he was known for his hospitality of inviting guests to his home.

“That’s sort of always been in the Jewish DNA. You invite four people, you cook for eight. The Passover Seder, one of the main elements is opening the door for the stranger. And suddenly we’re feeling forced to look at every stranger closely as they walk in and wonder if they’re really our friend or not,” Gewirtz said.

The rabbi says for several years his synagogue has had two full time armed guards on site. There are also cameras and a buzzer to allow people into the building.

“While this country is figuring it out, we’re going to be safe,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League calls the Pittsburgh shooting the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. Murphy says it’s moments like these where people are tempted to blame and divide, but he says “we need to come together, not apart.”