The Jewish community in Arkansas and beyond has mourned the deaths of the 11 people killed Oct. 27 during a Shabbat service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and reflected upon Jews' history of persecution, but they have said hatred and violence will not stop their resolve to continue in their faith.
Robert Bowers, the suspect in what has been called the worst attack on a synagogue in U.S. history, was indicted on 44 criminal counts Wednesday, including hate crimes. He pleaded not guilty to the federal charges on Thursday.
Police say Bowers entered the synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday with an assault rifle and several handguns and opened fire on one of the three congregations that worship at the synagogue during a baby-naming ceremony.
"I wish it weren't the case, but I would say that Jewish Americans are more surprised that an incident like this hasn't happened sooner than it's happened now," said Rabbi Barry Block of Temple B'nai Israel in Little Rock.
Block said the attack comes at a time when violence carried out in the name of hate has become more common. An audit conducted last year by the Anti-Defamation League confirms that anti-Semitic occurrences -- including vandalism and harassment -- rose 57 percent in 2017, the highest increase in a single year since the league began keeping records in 1979.
The league also noted that the number of such events occurring in schools and on college campuses nearly doubled for the second consecutive year.
"[Attacks] have been directed at Christians who worship in Texas, people of color at a Bible study in South Carolina, and gay men celebrating who they are at a nightclub in Orlando," said Block, referring to three of the mass shootings that have occurred over the past three years.
Those targeted in violence have been "mostly people who are considered other than somebody's idea of what is supposedly a 'real American,'" Block said. "Mass shootings have become a plague upon America."
Pittsburgh native Phil Elson, who calls Arkansas Razorbacks baseball and women's basketball games, said the shooting took place five blocks from where he grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and where he stays when he visits his parents. Tree of Life is where Elson attended Hebrew school, where his father is a past president and his mother a former board member, and where he celebrated his bar mitzvah in May 1990.
"My heart is broken," Elson said during a memorial service Monday at Temple B'nai Israel in honor of the shooting victims. "My soul hurts, and my faith in humanity is shaken in ways that are impossible to describe."
It has been a few years since Elson last attended a service there, but he remembers Cecil and David Rosenthal, the two brothers who were killed in last week's shooting. The two were developmentally disabled, Elson said, and Cecil -- the more gregarious brother -- would start a conversation with anyone and people would respond to his humor and joviality.
"It always looked like he was kind of winking at you," Elson said.
James Aronson, a retired professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and former head of orthopedics at Arkansas Children's Hospital, lived two blocks from Tree of Life growing up and had his bar mitzvah at the synagogue in 1962.
"A few years ago I retired from UAMS after 32 years lecturing around the world," Aronson said during the memorial. "This seems a lot more difficult."
Aronson said he and his sister were confirmed at Tree of Life, and it was just two years ago, while visiting the area, that he was invited to go to the synagogue, where he saw his and his sister's confirmation class photos on the wall.
He recalled something Chuck Diamond, the rabbi of Tree of Life, had said in a recent interview.
"[Diamond] said, 'This room that we're in now is called a sanctuary,' and he reiterated the meaning of the word sanctuary, which means safe," Aronson said.
In lieu of passing a collection plate Monday, Block suggested that donations be made to HIAS -- formerly known as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society -- the resettlement agency established to aid Jewish refugees in 1881 that now helps all displaced immigrants in the United States. Bowers was known to have posted negative comments about HIAS on the social media network Gab before the Oct. 27 attack.
Lazar Palnick, an attorney for the Democratic Party in Pittsburgh and the son of the late Rabbi Zeke Palnick, a civil rights leader in Little Rock, responded to the attack by doubling his efforts to convince people to vote.
"I'm turning my efforts toward doing something positive, which is trying to change the tone in America by making sure that the leaders of our country and our state know that we won't tolerate incitement and bigotry and hate mongering," Palnick said.
Palnick was at home in Pittsburgh when he received the first phone call from someone who wanted to confirm that he and his family were safe after the attack at the synagogue. Friends from the Little Rock area and around the nation called to check on Palnick and his wife, Susanne Gollin. Some made contact for the first time in years.
Palnick said he received the news Sunday that he had been successful in handling a gerrymandering case in Pennsylvania. The next morning, he heard that President Donald Trump was seeking to sign an executive order to end birthright citizenship.
"Well, I'm an anchor baby," said Palnick, whose parents were refused entrance at Ellis Island after World War II and were put on a guarded train to Canada, where they could choose to stay or return to Europe. All of his family who didn't make it out of Europe died in the Holocaust, he said.
"The way I deal with it is, I don't get mad. I go vote," Palnick said. "And I tell everybody to vote."
Block addressed attendees, elected officials, candidates and clergy gathered at Temple B'nai Israel with a call to unify and end violence.
"We are here today not only as a Jewish community, but as an Arkansas family united in love and respect, to say that enough is enough," he said. "Violent acts and the violent rhetoric that inspired them must come to an end now, for it is already too late. ... We must commit ourselves to moving forward in life with resolve.
"We will not -- we must not -- let the anti-Semites or any other purveyors of hate defeat or define us."
Elson said Tree of Life was where he'd first learned about the Ten Commandments and about the Golden Rule, and that Tree of Life and the two other congregations that share the synagogue were stronger than evil and hate.
"In my time at Tree of Life, I learned about the power of love," Elson said. "And I'm not sorry if this sounds cheesy or simplistic, but the truth is love conquers hate, love conquers evil. Love conquers all."
With hundreds in attendance, Rabbi Barry Block, leader of Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, listens as a hymn is sung during a memorial service to honor the Tree of Life synagogue shooting victims on Monday at the temple.
Religious leaders, elected officials and candidates including (left) Sophia Said, director of the Inter- faith Center in Little Rock; Sister Deborah Troillet, director of the Arkansas House of Prayer; U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.); and Gov. Asa Hutchinson gather at the front of the sanctuary of Temple B'nai Israel in Little Rock on Monday during a memorial service honoring the 11 victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Religion on 11/03/2018
Print Headline: Love conquers all