Baltimore Jewish community gathers to mourn Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims, unite against anti-Semitism

Nearly 1,000 members of Baltimore’s Jewish community gathered Sunday morning for a rapidly assembled ceremony to decry acts of anti-Semitism and to support each other after the shooting that killed 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday.

They were joined at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation synagogue in Northwest Baltimore by several elected officials, including Rep. John Sarbanes and Sen. Ben Cardin, a University of Pittsburgh alumnus who said he spent much time in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the shooting took place.

“What happened in Pittsburgh was an attack on all of us,” said Cardin, also noting his wife’s roots in western Pennsylvania. “This hits particularly hard. It brings out the worst memories in the history of mankind.”

The gathering was one of at least two in the Baltimore area on Sunday in the wake of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation. Speakers and participants at Sunday’s events sought solidarity and decried the fomenting of anti-Semitism at a moment when Maryland has experienced hate crimes on the rise: Reported incidents grew by 35 percent last year, to a pace of more than one report a day; after African-Americans, Jews were the second most frequent target of hate crimes in Maryland last year.

Those at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation expressed shock and sorrow, fear and anger that a gunman would attack a place of worship as friends and family gathered for various Sabbath services, including a ritual circumcision ceremony at which a baby boy also receives his Hebrew name.

The gunman attacked the Tree of Life Congregation on Saturday morning with an assault-style rifle and three handguns, opening fire just before 10 a.m. and killing 11 people. The suspect, Robert Bowers, was arrested and charged with 29 federal counts in one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in U.S. history.

The attack wounded six others, including four police officers who confronted Bowers outside the synagogue, authorities said. No children were among the dead or wounded.

As Bowers left the synagogue he exchanged gunfire with police and was shot several times. He was reported in fair condition at a hospital in Pittsburgh. The charges against him include weapons offenses and hate crimes. The FBI’s Baltimore field office sent personnel to Pittsburgh to help with evidence collection and victim support, said FBI spokesman David Fitz.

Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation said the gathering was meant as a “show of solidarity, compassion and mourning with our fellow congregation in Pittsburgh.”

But he also wanted to demonstrate the community’s determination to continue to “live our Jewish lives,” continue to gather at synagogues and to show “that we do not fold in the face of anti-Semitic hatred.”

During the service, Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen said her “heart is so heavy” with “pain and bewilderment” that someone could harbor such “perverted” hatred to justify murder. She encouraged those at the service to do more than post on social media.

“Today we mourn. Tomorrow let us stand strong together. Because crying emojis are not enough,” she said.

Later Sunday, members of the area’s Jewish community and their supporters convened at the city’s Holocaust Memorial to remember those killed in Pittsburgh and to speak out against the current discourse that many said has led to such horrific acts.

“We are a mourning people and a fighting people,” one of the rally’s organizers, Jonah ben Avraham, told the crowd, referring to Jewish traditions of honoring the dead as well as of protest.

The setting — which features railroad tracks, like those on which Jews were taken to their deaths during the Holocaust — was an appropriate place to honor the 11 people killed Saturday ,said Zella Adams, 70. “It’s commemorating the death of 6 million Jews. … It seems like an obvious place to gather when Jews have been murdered.”

Adams and others blamed President Donald Trump for emboldening members of far-right hate groups to attack minorities such as Jews. “The current president — he gives license, he gives voice himself to these [racist] feelings,” said Vincent Masi, 63 of Baltimore. Masi called Trump’s suggestion that synagogues needed to have armed guards “outrageous.”

Non-Jewish clergy, laypeople and activists came to show solidarity. Lutheran deacon Don Helfer wore a Messianic prayer shawl over his red vestments. The shawl, which features Hebrew script, helps him to connect with God during prayer. “I thought bringing this today would hold a lot of meaning,” he said.

Zainab Chaudry of the Council on American-Islamic Relations read from Martin Niemoeller’s poem, “First they came.” “Religious freedom is under attack in this country,” she said.

Anita Rozenel, a member of the Beth Tfiloh congregation in Pikesville, said at the morning ceremony that she had received an emailed letter Saturday night from her synagogue’s leadership about unity that compelled her to attend Sunday’s ceremony.

“We need to be together to support each other and to feel the loss and to somehow heal,” Rozenel said. “I’m trying to stay positive and think that this is an isolated incident, but the rhetoric is frightening. It’s giving people a license to say and do whatever they want.”

Rozenel worries that others who share anti-Semitic hatred may feel “empowered” by the shooting.

“That’s very scary,” said the retired Baltimore County public school teacher. “But I have tremendous faith in the human race.”

Sylvan Cornblatt, 81, did not share her hopeful assessment. He advocates armed auxiliary units to protect all synagogues.

“To do less is ridiculous,” said Cornblatt, adding that the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust should serve as warning. “I’ve always thought that what has happened in the past could be replicated here in the United States. I fear this is just the beginning.”

Across the nation and in Maryland hate crimes have been on the rise. And the state’s experience echoes a national increase in reported hate crimes, reversing what had been a long, gradual decline.

Maryland law enforcement agencies received 398 reports of hate or bias last year — alleged incidents that ranged from vandalism and intimidation to threats and attacks, according to the Maryland State Police and hundreds of pages of records reviewed by The Baltimore Sun. The reported incidents represented an increase of 35 percent from 2016 — and a pace of more than one report a day.

After African-Americans, Jews were the second most frequent target of hate crimes in Maryland last year, the data show.

Nationally, the number of hate crimes reported to the FBI rose 5 percent to 6,121 in 2016, the last year for which national numbers were available. Hate crimes reported to police in the 10 largest U.S. cities rose 13 percent last year, according to researchers at California State University, San Bernardino.

Many have blamed the shooting on national political rancor, but on Sunday the political rhetoric was of unity. Rival candidates for the post of Baltimore County executive — Democrat John Olszewski Jr. and Republican Al Redmer — stood arm-in-arm with current executive Donald Mohler singing “Olam Chesed.”

“My heart is broken,” Olszewski said.

“It’s tragic,” Redmer added.

Gov. Larry Hogan ordered flags to be flown at half-staff to honor the victims and emergency personnel who responded to the shooting.

“Maryland stands in solidarity with the Jewish community here at home and across the nation,” Hogan said on Twitter. “Together, we are stronger than hate.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Catherine Rentz and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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