Yesterday morning at around 11 am local time, 11 people lost their lives in what is believed to be the single worst assault on Jews in United States history. The oldest was Rose Mallinger, 97. The youngest was David Rosenthal, 54. Like some of the other victims both of them were from Squirrel Hill, the location of the Tree of Life Synagogue where the carnage took place.
Earlier this morning I heard from my colleague Jeff Finkelstein, who is the CEO of the Pittsburgh Federation. He told us that a local marine, a former combat veteran, reported that it was the single worst scene of human carnage he had ever seen. Jeff has not been able to enter the synagogue. He will be attending 11 funerals over the next week. 11 funerals, 11 families, 11 children without fathers or mothers.
The 11 victims were joined by six others who were injured, including three police officers who put their lives at risk by rushing in to confront the assailant, preventing what surely would have been an even worse outcome.
Yesterday’s casualties were targeted for one reason. They were Jewish. They were Jews who chose to worship according to our tradition.
But why yesterday, why this particular Shabbat morning?
Although we need not look for any other reason, the assailant explained his motivations in a post: Yesterday morning, the synagogue hosted HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and sponsored a program on helping immigrants. He said his attack was motivated because those Jews were helping immigrants and letting very bad people into our country.
As we remember this horrible anti-Semitic attack let us also remember that an assault on the immigrant, an assault on any minority, and any attempt to dehumanize others simply because they are different, is an assault to each one of us here.
Today, we stand in solidarity, as a community, with the victims of these attacks, with the broader Jewish community in Pittsburgh, with the Jewish People around the world, with all peoples who are outraged by these senseless acts. We gather here in our region to say, this will not stand, this is not us, we can and must do better.
I am Andrew Rehfeld, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. I thank you for standing with us for a vigil to turn hate into hope, to express our outrage at what occurred and move to a place of healing drawing on the traditions of multiple faiths. For while our community was the target of the assault we must never forget that an act of anti-Semitism is an act not just against the Jew. It is an assault on the very right of each of us to be treated as fully human no matter what our race or religion.
I have been overwhelmed by the show of support from our region. And want to acknowledge so many of you that have contacted me to share your pain and offer your support.
I want to begin by thanking the key individuals who made this gathering possible. To Lynn Wittels and the staff of The J, who within hours turned this gymnasium into a holy space. To Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Rabbi Noah Arnow, president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, who put together a meaningful program. To them and to so many of you who posted and tweeted and mobilized our community, this is the power that will fight hate. Knowing that we stand together, knowing that the Jewish community is not alone.
The history of anti-Semitism is marked by two very important kinds. The most devastating form is Statist anti-Semitism, when the state actively engages in the destruction of our people like it did during the Holocaust. Alongside is populist anti-Semitism, where hate-filled individuals target our people for imagined offenses that fill them with rage. Yesterday’s attack was one in a long line of populist anti-Semitism instances, tracing back at least to the creation of the blood libel in the 12th century and possibly before.
Populist anti-Semitism can only be conquered through education and strong support from the state. We saw that support yesterday in the scores of first responders who rushed to protect as many as they could. Here in St. Louis, I would also like to recognize our First Responder Community. The agencies that are home to Jewish Synagogues and Shuls immediately took action upon receiving word of this tragedy, placing vehicles and officers at those locations. Specific departments, such as St. Louis City and County, Creve Coeur, Chesterfield, Olivette, University City, and Clayton, responded to our Synagogues to provide visible support and reassurance. And along with those first responders, I want to thank two individuals here today: Jeff Jenson, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, and Richard Quinn, the special agent in charge of the FBI for St. Louis. I thank them all.
Standing behind me is also a group of elected officials who have reached out to offer their words of solidarity. I want to recognize first Governor Parson who was invited to speak today but unable to attend as well as Senator McCaskill and Representative Lacy Clay who had hoped to be here if not for their own out of town conflicts. I want to now invite U.S. Senator Roy Blunt to offer words of support on behalf of the US Congressional Delegation that also here includes Congresswoman Ann Wagner. Following the Senator’s remarks I will ask State Senator Jill Schupp to speak representing our state legislative delegation in Jeff City that here also includes Representative Stacy Neuman.
[Roy Blunt Speaks]
[Jill Schupp Speaks]
Would you please join me again in thanking Senator Blunt, Congresswoman Wagner, State Senator Schupp and State Representative Neuman, along with Senator-elect Brian Williams, Sarah Unsicker, a representative, and Rep. Derek Grier in standing together in condemnation of these awful attacks.
Twenty months ago, I stood before our region at the desecration of Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, and I said that in times of attack we must “name it, condemn it and do something about it.” We have now named this attack and condemned it. What can we do about it?
First, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis takes our commitment to our community’s security very seriously. Working in partnership with our local law enforcement, we have invested significantly in providing security advisory services and coordination for events and programs as needed. This work is our mission. It is what we are here to do, and I thank each of you who have made this work possible through your investment in our organizations.
Second, for those of you who are seeking counseling in times of crisis please take advantage of the significant support of Jewish Family and Children Services.
Third, educate yourself about the evils that happen when good people stand idly by. Visit our community Holocaust museum and make a commitment to the words “never again.”
Fourth, do your part to combat the scourge of incivility that has turned disagreements between us about ideas into personal attacks. Let us not leave here today without some reflection on how we are each fostering a culture and climate of civil discourse. Do your part to monitor your social media to delete posts that attack people rather than express disagreements.
And finally, each of us as citizens of the United States has a moral responsibility to call our political leadership to account during our election season. Work to support those who refuse to personalize political disagreement, target minorities, or create fear of immigrants. And call on all political leaders to condemn these actions as well. For it is this culture of hate that allows anti-Semitism to thrive.
Name it. Condemn it. And do something about it. I thank you and those on stage for standing in solidarity with us. Let us now commemorate and honor the memory of those who were killed.