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October 31, 2018 1:04 pm

American Jewry ‘Lost Its Innocence This Week,’ Community Leader Says After Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy


A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 31, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Cathal McNaughton.

American Jewry “lost its innocence this week,” a top community leader told The Algemeiner on Tuesday, as the first of the funerals for the 11 worshipers murdered by a white supremacist gunman at a synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat were held.

“We have to stand together against the forces of evil,” Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — said. “This is a war against evil, and people have to decide — there can’t be any compromise — not on the left and not on the right — about where people stand when it comes to bigotry, racism and antisemitism.”

“What is tragic,” Hoenlein added, “is that it took such a horrific event to bring us together, and remind everyone within the community how much we have in common.”

Hoenlein said there were “no easy answers” regarding the question of how Jewish institutions could better secure themselves following the Pittsburgh massacre — which was the deadliest assault on Jews in US history. Much of the issue, he noted, boiled down to the allocation of funds.

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“We need a lot of resources to do it effectively,” he said.

The sheer number of Jewish institutions in the US made the security challenge more complicated, Hoenlein pointed out.

Hoenlein stated, “People ask me, ‘Why in England can they have a guard outside every synagogue?’ And I say, ‘Well, we have more synagogues in Borough Park than they have in the entire country.’”

While the cost of hiring a guard might be prohibitive for some institutions, there are other options available to help prevent attacks, Hoenlein noted. For example, the installation of security cameras was a “one-time expenditure that doesn’t need to be very expensive,” Hoenlein noted.

Jewish schools, he went on to say, could sign parents up to do one day of “shmira” (the Hebrew word for guard duty) per year.

“That is a deterrent, because a parent will know who belongs and who doesn’t, much more than a guard would,” Hoenlein said.

Furthermore, Hoenlein emphasized, the Secure Community Network (SCN) — a joint initiative of the Conference of Presidents and the Jewish Federations of North America – has “all sorts of programs and training for schools and synagogues — what to do with a lone shooter, how to get people into closets and open fire doors.”

“They actually did some of that at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, which saved lives,” Hoenlein continued.

Looking forward, Hoenlein said, the focus on security must be maintained, rather than allowed to naturally dissipate over time.

“When budget committees meet, they always make security a stepchild that keeps getting pushed down on the priority list,” he said. “So we have to sustain the concern and the interest.”

Hoenlein also called for inciters of violence to face consequences for their behavior.

“I think everybody has to be held to account for what they say and what they do,” Hoenlein declared. “Anybody who appears with people such as Louis Farrakhan or David Duke, or who legitimizes antisemitism in any way, they all have to be held to account. Words count. It’s not just the deed, it’s those who encourage or justify or enable the haters. And this is something that goes across the political spectrum.”

“My hope is that we’ll witness a reawakening and a willingness to come to terms and deal with real-world problems in real-world ways,” he said. “We have to be realistic about what we can do and realistic about the challenges. It can’t be politicized, things should be seen in a new light.”

Recalling his visit to Pittsburgh the day after the shooting, Hoenlein said it was “very uplifting to see a rainbow of people, of every ethnicity from all over the country, come together in the thousands because they wanted to identify” with both the victims of the attack and the Jewish community as a whole, and he described the hundreds of vigils conducted across the US this week as a “remarkable statement.”

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