Responding to Tragedy

Northeast Philadelphia’s Jewish community reacts to Pittsburgh synagogue attack.

JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Northeast Philadelphia’s Jewish community has spent the days since the Oct. 27 attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue reacting, mourning and responding to the deadliest anti-Semitic incident in American history.

At Temple Beth Ami in Bustleton, congregants returned to synagogue on Saturday for services, a week after a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“When this happens to a synagogue in Pittsburgh, it happens to every single one of us,” Rabbi Mitchell Novitsky said during his sermon.

“We have to remember what happened. We owe it to those people,” he added. “We owe it to our relatives who perished in the Holocaust.”

Novitsky has a special connection to the events in Pittsburgh. His brother, Rabbi David Novitsky, serves at a synagogue in Washington, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. One of his congregants lost both his parents in the Oct. 27 attack.

Bernice, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86, married at the Tree of Life synagogue in 1956 and were described as staples of their community, according to a CNN article.

Some local Jewish institutions, like Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, are reexamining their security. The synagogue already has cameras that cover the perimeter of the building and a secure door system.

“It can happen anywhere,” said Jacques Lurie, Shaare Shamayim’s executive director. “Our congregants want to know if they’re going to be safe, and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to do that.”

Still, Lurie and others find it hard to fathom that places of worship in the United States have to devote so much time and resources to security in 2018.

“The fact is that synagogues and churches and mosques ought to be thinking about relationships with their God and their congregants and their communities and not about door locks and guards,” Lurie said.

Coming to terms with the horrific attack has been a challenge for all.

Students at Politz Hebrew Academy, a K-8 school in Bustleton, asked why somebody would show up at a synagogue to shoot people, according to Head of School Besie Katz.

“I explained that this is not how people normally are but it comes from a place of hatred,” Katz said. “It comes from a place of sadness. It comes from a place of not believing in anything.”

Katz said she was touched at how the students seemed concerned more about the Pittsburgh community than their own safety. Many in the 428-member student body have connections to the western part of the state, she said.

“I was proud of them. I was sorry that they had to be part of a world where this is happening,” Katz said. “It’s almost like the loss of their innocence.”

The school has a social worker on staff who is available to speak with students, according to Katz.

A town hall discussion on security will be held at Politz Hebrew Academy, 9225 Old Bustleton Ave., on Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will feature the participation of law enforcement agencies, elected officials, security experts and community leaders.

Uniting against hate has become a national theme in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack. Part of the fight is continuing to show up at synagogue, Novitsky said. He has heard from people who are now afraid to attend services.

“We cannot be victims of hate. We need to be vigilant,” Novitsky told the Times. “We cannot let deranged individuals who are full of hate dictate what we do.”
During the Shabbat service on Saturday, Novitsky told the congregation about his own experience with anti-Semitism.

Novitsky said he was walking in his Rhawnhurst neighborhood when he was a teenager when a car pulled up and four men jumped out and surrounded him. They insulted him for being Jewish and ripped off his yarmulke. One of the guys burned it with a lighter, and all four started beating him up.

He said the men continued kicking him until someone who lived on the block came to help Novitsky and chased them away.

“Why do I bring up this story?” he said. “Anti-Semitism is, unfortunately, a cancer. Usually, it’s people who have issues with their own lives, people who are looking for a scapegoat.”

Novitsky asked the people gathered in the synagogue to honor the memories of the victims and focus on the good things and good people in the world.

“Whenever you do that, it helps you get past those who are filled with hate,” Novitsky said. ••