Heavy On Jewish Ritual, Pittsburgh Protests Stress Wider Context For Attack
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Heavy On Jewish Ritual, Pittsburgh Protests Stress Wider Context For Attack

Was anti-Semitism alone at play in the Tree of Life attack, or was it white nationalism?

An estimated 4000 people gathered to march for solidarity in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood while President Donald Trump was visiting October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The march was in support of the victims of the Tree of Life mass shooting October 27, 2018. Getty Images
An estimated 4000 people gathered to march for solidarity in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood while President Donald Trump was visiting October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The march was in support of the victims of the Tree of Life mass shooting October 27, 2018. Getty Images

Pittsburgh — With swatches of black ribbon in their hands, the protesters raised their arms to the sky and recited a blessing: Blessed is the Lord, Master of the universe, the true Judge. Then they tore their ribbons in half, a ritual of mourning for the 11 Jewish lives lost at Tree of Life Congregation just a block away and a symbol of Pittsburgh’s many broken hearts.

As much of the local Jewish community continues to be absorbed in the logistics of grieving — deciding which funerals to attend, planning shiva visits, attending vigils and prayer services — Tuesday’s protest of President Trump’s visit here laid bare a division in the Jewish community between those who wish to focus on the particularly anti-Semitic nature of the shooting and those who connect the hatred directed at Jews with that of other minority groups who have been targeted during the Trump administration.

The distinction appears to be a generational one — older Pittsburgh Jews focusing on anti-Semitism and millennials looking through a more intersectional lens. And it can be heard in the language used in talking about the shooting — was the shooter an anti-Semite or a white nationalist? Is this event just the latest chapter in the long history of deadly anti-Semitism or part of a trend of racially motivated shootings incited by political flame fanning? Who gets to speak for the Jewish community as it mourns, and who gets to tell its story?

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, alongside Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, place stones and flowers on a memorial as they pay their respects at the Tree of Life Synagogue following last weekend’s shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 30, 2018. Getty Images

“I think the focus on talking about the problem as being white supremacy is really important,” said Robert Zacharias, 33, a teacher at Carnegie Mellon University here who attended Tuesday’s protests. “If you’re talking only about anti-Semitism, you’re missing the bigger problem.”

Zacharias is a member of IfNotNow, a grassroots Jewish organization founded in 2014 to oppose American support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The group’s Pittsburgh chapter spearheaded a vigil Tuesday afternoon inspired by the mourning practice of shiva; it was followed by a massive protest organized by the local branch of Bend The Arc, a left-wing Jewish social justice organization, to oppose the president’s visit here.

Jewish symbolism was present throughout the protest, which was peaceful and solemn. The marchers sang Jewish songs from Hebrew liturgy “Ozi v’zimrat yah” to “Oseh shalom” to “Olam chesed yibaneh/We will build this world with love,” at times giving the protest the feeling of a summer camp sing-along. At the earlier gathering spearheaded by IfNotNow, organizers encouraged the crowd of over 200 to eat something from the table full of donated food from Costco, a tribute to the tradition in which the community provides meals for those sitting shiva. “I invite you to come into Jewish ritual with me,” an organizer announced to the assembled crowd before a song and public recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

The gathering was more overtly politicized than many of the other gatherings held earlier in the week. “We are here to mourn the 11 Jewish people that were killed on Saturday; we are here to mourn the two black people who were shot by a white nationalist in Louisville, Kentucky last Wednesday,” said one organizer, connecting the Pittsburgh shooting with the murder of two African Americans gunned down last week at a Kroger supermarket in Louisville. The IfNotNow event ended with the blowing of the shofar.

An estimated 4000 people gathered to march for solidarity in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood while President Donald Trump was visiting October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The march was in support of the victims of the Tree of Life mass shooting October 27, 2018. Getty Images

“It can mean a lot of different things — it can be a sound of mourning, it can be a call to action, it can be a call of victory,” one of the organizers announced before blowing the shofar three times. “We’re going to use it for all three things today.”

The crowd eventually joined the Bend The Arc gathering, the first protest in the city since the shooting and one which drew thousands of people. “While we cannot speak for all Pittsburghers or even all Jewish Pittsburghers, we know we speak for a diverse and unified group when we say, President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you commit yourself to compassionate, democratic policies that recognize the dignity in all of us,” said Bend The Arc organizers at the start of the march.

President Trump was welcomed Tuesday by some in the Jewish community here. The president, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump were met at Tree of Life by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, and the President Trump met privately with the widow of one of the victims of what is being described as the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Isaac Weissman-Markovitz, 13, hurried home from school so he could participate in the protest. He carried a sign that he printed at home and taped to a pink plastic ruler. “Even though young people can’t vote, you still need to get your voice heard and out there,” said the Squirrel Hill native. His school held a vigil today where he urged his fellow students to become politically active. “We can get people out to vote with call banks and by participating in these marches,” said Weissman-Markovitz. “Even though I can’t vote, I can still do a lot to help out the situation.”

Not all the protesters were Jewish or lived in Squirrel Hill.

“I feel like [the attack at Tree of Life] hit really personally and really close to home because I attend Hillel on Fridays here,” said Meredith Levene, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon who attended the march. “And it could have been Hillel, it could have been my synagogue at home.”

“I started looking for a protest as soon as I heard Trump was coming,” said Barry Adams, a Pittsburgh resident of over 40 years who arrived at the protest on his bike.

The march started at Beechwood and Forbes, just a few blocks from Tree of Life Congregation. It wound its way through Squirrel Hill as neighbors came out to watch the procession. As the president’s motorcade passed the crowd, the crowd booed and turned its back to snub the president. Passing the police station, the crowd erupted in applause and cheers for the police force that has been a constant presence in the neighborhood since Saturday’s attack.

An estimated 4000 people gathered to march for solidarity in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood while President Donald Trump was visiting October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The march was in support of the victims of the Tree of Life mass shooting October 27, 2018. Getty Images

The protest made plain the close connections the city’s IfNotNow and Bend The Arc chapters have with local social justice organizations who joined in protest and in numbers. Though not sponsored by the Jewish community, the protest clearly made an impact as neighbors stood in their front yards watching the protests and taking videos on their phones. One woman took a break from setting up Halloween decorations on her roof to take a video on her phone.

A number of speakers addressed the crowd at the end of the march at the intersection of Murray and Forbes, encouraging attendees to vote and volunteer for call banking and canvassing. Juniors in high school Simone and Anya, leaders of the local Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom group, addressed the crowd together. “I never thought I would have to watch my 8-year-old sister crying in our synagogue because she didn’t understand why all the adults around her were breaking down in tears,” said Simone. “Yesterday, my sister told me and my mom that she never wants to return to our synagogue.”

“The Jewish community has been a steadfast supporter and ally of the Muslim community,” said Anya. “The Muslim community and I stand with you against hate and terror.”

“Election Day is one week away, the period of mourning is called shiva, which means seven, and that period of mourning will come to an end on Election Day,” said Jamie Forrest, a Bend The Arc activist. “Reflection will give way to action.”

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