On October 27, 2018, a man posted anti-Semitic messages about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on a social media website called Gab, which has been criticized for providing a platform for white nationalism and anti-Semitism.
A Pittsburgh synagogue, Tree of Life, is one of many institutions that supports the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Shortly after the man’s last anti-Semitic posts, police say he entered Tree of Life and killed eleven people. Many others were injured in the shooting, including some
of the first responders on the scene. In the few days after the tragedy, vigils were held, and many mourned the violence that occurred.
Gab only suspended the suspected shooter’s account after the incident, but did agree to cooper- ate with the ongoing investigation. According to the New York Times, he had created an account on the social network back in January. He shared a stream of anti-Jewish slurs and conspiracy theories. The platform allowed him to find a community willing to listen to those beliefs.
In response to the shooting, on November 1st, members of Hillel hosted an Interfaith dinner on campus where members of Ursinus gathered as a community to remember the victims of the tragedy and reflect as a whole. It was followed by a prayer vigil at the LOVE statue in remembrance of the victims of the Tree of Life Shooting led by Revered Ofori.
Dr. Alexandria Frisch, Professor of Jewish Studies and Coordinator of Jewish Life at Ursinus, explained, “While mass shootings have unfortunately become quite frequent, the Pittsburgh shooting was the first anti-Semitic shooting. It was also the largest act of anti-Semitic violence ever committed in the United States.”
In the days that followed, President Trump flew to Pitts- burgh to visit the Tree of Life synagogue. Although he lit candles and placed small stones to commemorate the fallen victims, his visit only highlighted the division in the nation.
Protesters gathered around Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the incident took place, carrying signs that read “Words matter” and “President Hate is not welcome in our state.”
Bill Peduto, mayor of Pittsburgh, urged the president not to visit while the mourners were still grieving. Peduto, along with top Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, were invited to join Trump, but declined.
The shooting suspect, Robert Gregory Bowers, pleaded ‘not guilty’ on November 1st in response to charges of 11 counts of homicide, six counts of aggravated assault, and multiple counts of ethnic intimidation and attempted homicide.
Although Pittsburgh was the location of the tragedy, the reverberations of the act have affected the entire Jewish community and the rest of Ursinus. Jess Green- burg, Religious and Sustainability Chair of Ursinus Hillel, states, “Although many people have been incredibly supportive of the Jewish community on campus, events like this make you wonder who around you may also harbor anti-Semitic feelings, and can make it uncomfortable to talk about your Jewish identity in public.”
Dr. Frisch also acknowledged the sentiments among Jewish students, stating: “I know that for some Jewish students it has made them feel that it is an incredibly vulnerable time to be a Jew and, particularly, an American Jew. It has made them more aware of their minority status in this country.”
Additionally, Dr. Frisch says, “Ursinus College is unique, because, although it is a small campus with a small Jewish population, we have an active Hillel and a Hillel House, as well as Jewish studies classes and lectures. I think these resources foster a much greater awareness of Jewish life on this campus. We saw that this was true in last week’s vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. A diverse group of faculty, staff, and students gathered together not only to remember the victims but in a great show of interfaith solidarity.”
“I know that for some Jewish students it has made them feel that it is an incredibly vulnerable time to be a Jew and, particularly, an American Jew.”— Dr. Alexandria Frisch Professor of Jewish Studies
Sam Rosenthal, Hillel Public Relations, says, “I joined Ursinus Hillel a few years ago because I’m Jewish and I wanted to be a bigger part of our Jewish community. Hillel makes me feel like I’m not alone, which is why it’s so important to me. Not everyone knows the words to our evening prayers, nor does everyone in the room have faith at all. Jews don’t always believe in God, but I’ve never met a Jew that wouldn’t say that they believed in one another. Shabbat dinners and other Hillel things remind me that we’re in this together.”
Dr. Frisch says that Judaism is “a way of life that is rich with festivals, spirituality, food, traditions, prayer, humor, folklore, ethics, family and community.” Ursinus Hillel organizes a weekly Shabbat dinner and monthly bagel brunches open to students of all backgrounds, showcasing this vibrant way of life on cam- pus. There are also celebrations of the holidays and occasional guest speakers discussing various topics in Judaism.