Members of the St. John’s community have spent the last week and a half speaking out against anti-Semitic violence following the shooting that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“Anti-Semitism exists everywhere, in forms that I cannot recognize sometimes,” said junior Natalie Eshaghian, president of the Jewish Student Association. “It hurts that we have to live in such a world where such hatred exists.”
A man armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns shouted anti-Semitic slurs when he killed 11 congregants, injured two congregants and injured two police officers at the Tree of Life Synagogue Oct. 27. The mass shooting occurred within the quiet Squirrel Hill neighborhood of the steel city, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international Jewish NGO, called the massacre the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the U.S. since 1985 when a man killed a family of four in Seattle, which he had mistakenly thought were Jewish.
“I’ll tell you now that living my everyday life as a Jew can feel scary at times. You know that anti-Semitism exists and you can run into it at any point,” Eshaghian said. “However, it doesn’t mean that we as Jewish people should let them step on us and let them win. We will continue to rise above and stop these acts of hatred towards our people.”
A Pittsburgh remembrance event was held in the Law School on Nov. 6 where Dean Mike Simon reflected on the events of the shooting and Rabbi Richard Weiss read a prayer in Hebrew.
The Rabbi also read the names of the victims: Joyce Fienberg, 75, Richard Gottfried, 65, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, David Rosenthal, 54, (brother of Cecil), Bernice Simon, 86, Sylvan Simon, 86, (husband of Bernice), Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69.
Dean Simon discussed how, although St. John’s is a Catholic university, its origins in Brooklyn go back to giving an education to the children of immigrants — and many of them were Jewish. He said that even today, “We are very much a Jewish law school.”
St. John’s University President Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw released a statement via internal communication on Monday, Oct. 29, expressing his solidarity with the victims and the families of the event.
“As a Catholic and Vincentian University, St. John’s strongly condemns all acts of anti-Semitism, violence, hate, intolerance, bigotry, and racism,” he said. “We must reject the hate and violence that serves to divide us and resolve to root out ideologies of intolerance wherever they exist.”
Despite St. John’s Catholic and Vincentian reputation, the Jewish Student Association on campus currently has a roster of more than 200 students. Eshaghian believes the Jewish community is strong on campus, it’s just a matter of finding each other.
“Being the president of the JSA, I truly devote my time and energy into finding a safe space for the Jewish students on campus for reasons like these,” she said. “After reading the internal communications statement given by the President of the University, I can see that the school tries their best in stopping any acts of anti-Semitism or any act of violence towards students. We appreciate that the school takes such actions and helps our students to make this campus a more comfortable and safer campus.”
Fr. Patrick Griffin spoke on the Pittsburgh event from a Catholic standpoint, saying that Jewish students at St. John’s require little reminder that prejudice against the Jewish community is still powerfully alive.
“Violence of any kind is horrid, but one spurred on by hatred of another because of religion has a particular odium: the God of love is made a participant in the battle,” he said. “As companion believers in the one God, the community at St. John’s — Catholic and other followers — joins our Jewish brothers and sisters in mourning and in a fervent prayer for an end to this kind of militant enmity.”
The shooting in Pittsburgh was at least the third mass shooting in a house of worship in three years. Last November 26 people were killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and before that in 2015, a white supremacist killed nine people in a church in Charleston, S.C.
Michelle Birman, a Jewish student and junior, was shocked to hear about the news of the shooting.
“Through all the rallies, protests and political changes, it seemed like we were heading in the right direction but due to this incident, it is evident that more actions and attention need to take place towards this anti-Semitic issue,” she said.
Benjamin Klein, also a Jewish student and junior, said he felt a sense of attachment to the tragedy because it directly touched his religious community.
“This could have happened at any synagogue around the country which makes me have to be more aware that there are people in this world who have a strong sense of animosity and hatred towards me for who I am,” Klein said.
On Gempesaw’s statement to the St. John’s community, Klein said, “It has a nice message but I feel that very few students and faculty in all actuality read the statement and therefore has very little purpose. It isn’t going to change the way people act and live their daily lives.”
Eshaghian said that one of the Rabbis for the JSA, Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, spoke at their general body meeting the Monday after the shooting.
Eshaghian said the rabbi stressed to students that, “We as Jews do not stay quiet during times like these. Instead of having a moment of silence to remember these individuals, we will have a moment to think about what we, as the Jewish nation, can do in our own lives to uplift these Jewish souls.”