Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, arrived in Pittsburgh last week to demonstrate solidarity with a community grieving the loss of 11 members murdered in the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill.
Although Herzog, whose family is steeped in the annals of Israeli history — between 1983 and 1993, Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog, served as Israel’s president, and between 1936 and 1959, Herzog’s paternal grandfather was Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi — came representing the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit, he described his visit in intimate terms.
“I came here first and foremost as a friend,” said Herzog, who prior to his appointment at the Jewish Agency was the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, “a friend of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.”
The week before the attack, Herzog noted, he and representatives of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh were in Israel for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly.
“Little did we envision or imagine that in a few days’ time would there be such a horrific or heinous attack on Jews in Pittsburgh,” he said. When news of the horror reached the Jewish state, Herzog took to the airwaves to articulate “what the Pittsburgh Jewish community is all about.
“I described the community, which is a very strong community and a very historic community, and a very Zionistic community and a community that’s heavily involved in the general life of the greater Pittsburgh area,” he continued.
In addition to Herzog, Pittsburgh’s two shinshinim — Israeli 18-year-olds Raz Levin and Hadar Maravent, who serve as volunteer emissaries to the city’s Jewish community as part of a Jewish Agency program — also represented the Steel City to Israeli audiences.
“They spoke about the community every day in the Israeli media,” said Herzog. “You are talking about 18-year-olds who are in the community, who are doing great work — also on campus — and they spoke beautifully and told the story of [the] community in the most impressive way.”
Prior to Shabbat, Herzog came to Squirrel Hill to pay his personal respects, participating in a candle lighting ceremony alongside Gov. Tom Wolf, Cindy Shapira and David Shapira at the makeshift memorial outside Tree of Life. He also visited family members of the deceased.
“I’ve grown even more impressed,” he said of witnessing the community pulling together in the wake of the tragedy. “You have forces that are strong, that are impressive — and you should know that your brothers and sisters in the world feel the same.”
Herzog drew on his perspective from sitting atop international Jewish communal life.
“We as leaders see a lot of difficult events,” he said. “I have seen many terror attacks in Israel. I have visited many bereaved homes in Israel. I know what it is. I know how a community reacts. The community is still in the process of mourning. It will take time to get out of it and understand the repercussions.
“We live in an era where evil tries in many ways to supersede the good,” he added. “We live in an era where we saw 9/11; we know there are evil human beings. … [But history] will judge [the good people who stood up] in a very favorable way, that they were there, they took leadership and they dealt with it in a very bold way.”
Turning to the future, Herzog acknowledged that Pittsburgh, like other communities, will probably address the issue of security.
“That’s the natural thing to do,” he said. “But thereafter, how to deal with the issue of Jewish hate, of white supremacists, of people who have quick accessibility to weapons … these are strategic issues I think the umbrella organizations … will have to deal with.”
Ultimately, he said, “the most important thing is there is no golden formula. The real formula is to stay together, to remember the collective. The strength of the Jewish people has been through community, not through individuals or individualism. … The Jewish heart pulses everywhere around the world in the same manner, that’s what one needs to know here in Pittsburgh.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.