Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace will host a “Shabbat of Solidarity: United Against Hatred” service this evening to remember the victims of the deadly mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last week and in an effort to bring the community together in the face of rising political strife and violence in the United States.
Eleven people died and six others were injured, including four police officers, during an attack on congregants gathered for services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday morning. The suspect, Robert Bowers, faces federal hate crime charges, although he pleaded not guilty during a court appearance Thursday.
Bowers allegedly shouted during the shooting that he wanted to kill Jews and wrote posts on social media beforehand blaming Jews for bringing refugees to the U.S. The Pittsburgh shooting capped off a week of hate-fueled violent incidents, including the murder of two black people at a Kentucky supermarket by a man allegedly targeting African-Americans, and the arrest of a Florida man accused of mailing bombs to prominent Democratic figures and national media organizations.
Federal and state officials are launching reviews of hate crime laws and reporting practices after a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and the rise of anti-Jewish incidents here in Maryland. They're searching for what more can be done to stop a surge of anti-Semitism in the United States.
All of this has happened days before the Nov. 6 national midterm elections. Republican President Donald Trump, who continues to monitor a caravan of Central American refugees heading through Mexico to the U.S. and has ordered troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, has been blamed for stoking tensions and fear leading to the mail bombs and killings in Pittsburgh.
“Of course we’re all frightened about the uptick in violence in society, and of hatred,” Temple Adas Shalom Rabbi Gila Ruskin said Thursday.
The rabbi stressed the Shabbat of Solidarity will not be a political event, saying “politics are going to be kept out of our religious service.”
“There will be no mention of the election or any politicians,” she said. “That’s not why we’re coming together.”
The traditional Shabbat evening service will include prayers for the 11 people who died in Pittsburgh and singing of “the old songs about brotherhood and learning to live together in peace and justice” such as “If I Had a Hammer,” Ruskin said.
Similar solidarity services are scheduled in other congregations around the nation Friday, according to Ruskin.
The Harford County service begins at 7:30 p.m. in the temple at 8 Earlton Road in Havre de Grace. People are encouraged to call ahead, 410-939-3170, if they plan to attend, as Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies are slated to be present for security, according to the rabbi.
“The Sheriff’s Office has been very responsive,” Ruskin said.
She said there has been an extensive outreach from members of the community offering support since the shooting.
“Everybody has been very supportive,” Ruskin said.
Members of local Christian and Muslim congregations have been invited to Friday’s service, along with area elected officials and members of the Adas Shalom congregation, according to Ruskin.
Renovations and additions to the temple building, which was dedicated in 1968, were recently completed, and they include new security features, according to the rabbi.
“[We] have a beautiful new addition to our building, and it’s really enhanced our environment in so many ways and one of those ways is, I think, we all feel more secure there,” Ruskin said.
She said people are still vulnerable, though. Ruskin talked with a group of adults and a group of middle and high school-aged youths at the temple Sunday, the day after the shooting.
She said the students have been through active-shooter drills at their public and private schools, and they were “very well informed” about what happened in Pittsburgh through social media.
“I asked them if they have experienced anti-Semitism,” she said. “Some had, and we talked about that.”
She asked them if they told their friends and peers if they are Jewish, since in some cases they are among only a few Jewish students. A few students said they have told their friends since “it’s such an important part of who they are,” but others wait until they are very close friends with someone, or they do not reveal their faith at all, Ruskin said.
She expressed concern that Jewish youths will be “less forthcoming” about their faith.
“We don’t know what’s ahead of us,” she said. “There is a lot of hatred being fomented and people looking for someone to blame for their troubles.”
Those receiving the blame in troubled times have, historically, been Jews, according to Ruskin.
She also expressed confidence that Jews living in the U.S. would be protected, however, because of laws and the Constitution. Ruskin cited the “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” among Americans of different religions “or no religion at all.”
“We have to try to not let ourselves be overwhelmed by fear and suspicion of the other,” Ruskin said.
‘Add love and light to the world’
Rabbi Kushi Schusterman, leader of the Harford Chabad congregation in downtown Bel Air, described a “heartwarming” response from the local community after the tragedy in Pittsburgh.
He said people, including clergy from other faiths, lay leaders and local residents, have reached out through phone calls, emails, social media messages and in-person visits.
“It’s really been a very heartwarming reaction from the community of people reaching out, just to make sure we’re OK,” Schusterman said Monday.
Anti-Jewish incidents reported to Maryland police agencies jumped 47 percent to 78 incidents in 2017, compared with 53 the year before, according to reports of hate or bias collected by Maryland State Police and obtained by The Baltimore Sun through public information requests.
Some people have offered gifts of flowers to the congregation, but Schusterman said he urged them to bring those flowers to people in the hospital, instead.
“It will be seen, it will be noticed and it will add love and light to the world,” he said.
Members of Chabad, including some whom the rabbi said are “security experts,” have been talking with the Sheriff’s Office and Bel Air Police Department about reviewing security protocols and if any upgrades need to be made.
Schusterman said people can fight the hate expressed by people such as the Pittsburgh shooter “by doing something good.”
One way is to contact Chabad to have a mezuzah placed on the door of one’s house or to have an existing mezuzah inspected and adjusted if needed.
A mezuzah is often placed in the doorway of Jewish homes. It is a small case containing Torah verses written on a scroll.
Schusterman called it a “spiritual security measure.” Pittsburgh-area rabbis have started a campaign for people to place mezuzot in their doors to show solidarity with the victims and the wider Jewish community. The goal is 1,100 mezuzot at homes in the Pittsburgh region.