This month marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a violent riot against Jews carried out in Germany in 1938. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, hospitals, schools and homes were smashed.
The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues and attacked over 7,000 Jewish businesses throughout Germany. Beyond the hundreds of Jews that were killed and injured, 30,000 Jews were arrested and incarcerated into concentration camps during the riot. The violence was fully publicized but their government and community stood by and did nothing.
The shooting at the Tree of Life building was nothing new. Anti-Semitic murders have long been a when, not an if. Unprovoked, unpunished, violent outbursts against Jews (and most minorities) have been happening all over the world for thousands of years. While I am deeply sorry that the shooting happened to our beloved Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh, it could have happened anytime, anywhere. Whether in Germany in 1938, or in America today, it was the same foul, familiar story.
While anti-Semitic violence is old news, it is important to recognize that this time was different. When German Jews were murdered in 1938, police did nothing to stop the attackers. When Jewish businesses burned, fire trucks only ensured that the fire didn’t spread to non-Jewish-owned buildings. When Jewish temples were desecrated, non-Jewish leaders did nothing to stop the violence or help the victims rebuild.
That is not what happened in Pittsburgh. Our heroic SWAT police officers were at the scene of the shooting within three minutes of the first gunshots, risking their lives, shielding the victims with their own bodies. Following the attack, police have been sent to guard every synagogue in the city to ensure that Jews can gather and worship without fear.
When Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life building was stained with the blood of victims, donors of every religion and color, from all around the world, donated millions of dollars and hundreds of volunteers. One church anonymously sent 11 separate donation checks, to memorialize each of the 11 victims.
Muslims raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid the victims and survivors. Wasi Mohammed, former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said, “Whatever the community needs, we’ll be there for them. If it’s guarding the synagogue; if it’s walking to the grocery store. If it’s people outside your next service protecting you, we will be there.” Shay Khatiri, an Iranian immigrant, raised over $1 million, asking people to “respond to this hateful act with your act of love.”
The president of our country came with his family to pay respects to the victims and spoke out against anti-Semitism. With our rabid sports fans, anyone who has witnessed a game here knows that when you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city. The sentiment was echoed by Mayor Bill Peduto at a rally for the synagogue saying, “We gather here today to say enough is enough and hate against one is hate against all.”
Hate crimes against Jews and other minorities are sick and sad but have gone on for too long to be shocking. What is shocking is the historical support that we have witnessed. Today, an attack against Jews is no longer just an attack against Jews, with neighbors standing idly by. Today, an attack against Jews is an attack against a compassionate and unified community, city and nation.
Now it is up to our Jewish community to remember this precedent the next time a mosque, church, club, school or neighbor is victimized. Today, we are not separate. We all bleed and fight and heal as one. pjc
Squirrel Hill resident Barry Rabkin serves on the JFCS board, Federation marketing committee and was selected for the 2019 Wechsler Fellowship and Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2019 40 Under 40.