Tree of Life, two years later: We can never forget. We must never forget | Shira Goodman

The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Shira Goodman

Two years ago, I began to receive news alerts about the deadly mass shooting unfolding in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

As the leader of a gun violence prevention organization at the time, I had lived through these events before, but this one felt different – it was in Pennsylvania, it was at a synagogue during Shabbat services, and it was in a place where many of my friends lived.

Sitting here now, I can remember exactly – the horror, sadness, anger and frantic texting and calling to find out what was happening and who was where.

Ultimately, we would learn that eleven people were murdered that day, with six more injured in the attack.  Tonight, Pittsburgh commemorates this day  and invites us all to join them to “remember and reflect in spirit and action.”

Today, I have been reflecting on the deadliest attack against Jews in America and what has happened in the two years gone by from my relatively new vantage point as the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Since the shooting, we have witnessed deadly attacks against Jews in Poway, Jersey City and Monsey.

ADL’s Annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents for 2019 showed the highest number of such incidents – including vandalism, harassment and physical assault – in the 40 years since we began tracking.  Pennsylvania recorded its second highest number of incidents last year with 109, ranking us number 5 in the nation.

Anti-semitism in American can be deadly, and we cannot afford to leave it unchecked. This is not only a Jewish problem; this is an American problem.

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Anti-semitism is one of the many forms of hatred and othering festering in our nation and threatening to irreparably tear us apart. No one can stand alone in the fight against hate, and no one can claim to be fighting hate unless they fight all forms and manifestations of hate.  America has a problem, and we all share responsibility to solve it.

Two years ago, I drove to Pittsburgh. I was there for the community gathering the day after the shooting and for smaller ceremonies and conversations.

One of the most striking moments to me, and one I come back to time and again in my work at an organization dedicated to fighting hate, was late on Monday afternoon.

The Black Political Empowerment Project, led by Tim Stevens, had planned to hold a press conference to encourage black voters to head to the polls the following week. Tim swiftly transformed the press conference into a gathering of Black religious and community leaders to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.

I was there, along with representatives of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. As the speeches closed, Tim asked the Jews to come forward together, and then, surrounded by the Black leaders, a blessing of peace, safety and friendship was offered for us.

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At a time of great turmoil, tragedy, and unease, I suddenly felt protected and loved.

As the ministers and imams and community leaders stood with Jews against hate that day and in the days following, so have Jews stood with others in their all too frequent times of grief in recent years.

We must always come together to condemn hate. No one is born hating others, and hate usually is not singular – it has multiple targets.  The truth is that hatred is learned and can be unlearned. That is the work to which we must commit.

We have been allowing ourselves to become numb to the hatred we witness, and when we do that, we normalize it. That, in turn, leads to escalating behaviors, from biased comments, to slurs, to harassing conduct to violence.  It is our responsibility – all of us – to interrupt that cycle.

We must call out hate when we see it, regardless of who is the speaker and who is the target. This isn’t always easy, but it is always necessary.

Anti-semitism is an American problem, because hatred is an American problem. The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue unfortunately falls within a long timeline of deadly attacks fueled by hate – hatred against Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, and anyone defined as “other.”

No one is safe from hatred until we all are safe.

Shira Goodman is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. She writes from Philadelphia.