Jews rethink security in light of recent spate of antisemitic incidents
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SecuritySafety concerns cause anxiety among some

Jews rethink security in light of recent spate of antisemitic incidents

“It used to be no big deal for me to drive into Squirrel Hill, do some quick shopping, run in, grab some things from the deli. Now, if I don’t have to, I choose not to."

Shaare Torah is located on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. In the last year, the street has seen a rise in antisemitic attacks. Photo by David Rullo.
Shaare Torah is located on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. In the last year, the street has seen a rise in antisemitic attacks. Photo by David Rullo.

Julie* grew up in Squirrel Hill but now avoids the neighborhood when possible.

The 30-year-old Fox Chapel resident said she attended Shaare Torah when she was younger, worked and volunteered in the area as an adult and shopped in the business district.

“It used to be no big deal for me to drive into Squirrel Hill, do some quick shopping, run in, grab some things from the deli. Now, if I don’t have to, I choose not to,” she said.

For Julie, things began changing after the massacre at the Tree of Life building — her grandfather lives nearby on Murray Hill. And while the murders didn’t force an immediate alteration in her behavior, it was the start of her feeling uneasy in the neighborhood.

Things changed for her last summer while working at Weinberg Terrace, a senior living facility on Bartlett Street, during active shooting training.

“I never thought part of my regular workday would be training for an active shooter,” she said.

A recent spate of antisemitic verbal and physical assaults in Squirrel Hill have caused her to begin hiding her Jewish identity, she said.

“I never felt unsafe being Jewish. It was information I used to volunteer all the time. Now, even when I work in the community, when I’m in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, I keep that information to myself,” she said. “That’s probably the worst part for me — I feel like I have to ‘pass’ when I’m in the community.”

Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, understands Julie’s anxiety but said community members need not feel unsafe.

“I think people should continue to do what they do,” Brokos said. “And that is to be very aware of their surroundings and be cognizant of suspicious or unusual behavior.”

Over the last eight months, at least four antisemitic incidents were reported in Squirrel Hill: In September 2021, Tyrone Correll was arrested for simple assault, harassment and ethnic intimidation. Christian Williams was arrested on April 17 for making antisemitic comments and threats. On May 8, David Aul was arrested after choking a victim in a Murray Avenue store. On May 17, a white male in a red Dodge Ram with a landscaping trailer attached yelled antisemitic comments at Jewish community members.

Additionally, antisemitic fliers were distributed in Jewish neighborhoods in both Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon.

Brokos said there is nothing to connect the incidents beyond mental health issues suffered by some of the perpetrators.

“They were acting separate and apart from one another,” she said. “We have no known links between them.”

Brokos said she has struggled with the question of why the Jewish community is being attacked, especially after all the work done after the shooting at the Tree of Life building that brought attention to the harm caused by antisemitism.

Pointing to the recent attacks in both Buffalo and Orange County, California, Brokos said it only takes one individual to latch onto hate and commit a violent act.

Western Pennsylvania has seen a marked increase in antisemitic incidents, according to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League. There were 20 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault against Jewish individuals in the area last year — the most since the organization began tracking them in 1979.

Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, understands that the recent increase in antisemitic incidents can cause a person to feel unsafe. She said the first thing a person can do is stop to consider whether they truly are in danger.

“There are a lot of risks in living,” Feinstein said. “Every day, we take calculated risks. At that moment, ask yourself, ‘Am I actually unsafe? It’s broad daylight, I have a cellphone, I am aware and there are people nearby, so I’m not alone.’”

After assessing the situation, Feinstein said the next step is to decide what can be done to feel safe. Situational awareness is important, she said.

“Sometimes when people feel unsafe, they stay home or try and distract away that thought,” Feinstein explained. “My strong recommendation is that people learn how to help themselves through that consciously, otherwise every time we hear something that feels unsafe, we’ll be reactive rather than intentional about our response.”

Previous trauma, Feinstein said, can further exacerbate feelings of anxiety. That trauma doesn’t need to be experienced firsthand. Awareness of the attack at the Tree of Life building, the recent attacks in Squirrel Hill or even the pandemic may make a person feel unsafe.

“Perception is based on your lived experiences,” she noted.

Feinstein said that the 10.27 Healing Partnership can help with immediate concerns associated with anxiety or depression, and that long-term therapy might be helpful.

Rick Wice, a Squirrel Hill community member, understands that people are feeling anxious. He doesn’t think Squirrel Hill is unsafe, but he is concerned by the recent spate of antisemitic behavior.

Wice said the important thing is that people are aware and alert.

“If you see something, say something,” he said. “We can’t walk and live in our neighborhood in fear.”

Wice said the Shaare Torah security team deserved credit for the work it’s done to keep Murray Avenue safe.

“They’re on the front line,” he said. “I don’t think we have to be worried. Worried doesn’t answer the problem. Alertness does. Communication, training. If your shul offers any sort of security training, take it. Anything you see, anything you hear, if you feel threatened, call 911. Don’t qualify your concern. If you’re in danger or someone else is in danger, call 911. You’re not inconveniencing the police — that’s their job. And make sure you report anything to the Federation.”

Brokos is proud of the work Pittsburgh has done to keep its Jewish community safe and agrees with Wice that training is an important part of the security process.

“Pittsburgh has done an incredible job of building resiliency and awareness and strengthening community,” Brokos said. “We should be focused on preparedness and being empowered to know we can fight against this hate — through increased training, education and collaboration. We are working more closely with our community partners, law enforcement and faith-based partners. This is not a fight against individuals but a fight against hate, and it takes all of us working together.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

*Last name withheld upon request.

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