Long before he became a rabbi for Chabad of Humboldt, Eliyahu Cowen moved with his family to Pittsburgh in the ninth grade. There, he found a city of “love, friendship, unity and camaraderie,” along with a friendly appreciation from others of what his Jewish faith meant to him.
His memories of the community are what convince Cowen that the Saturday shooting which left 11 dead and six more injured at a Pittsburgh synagogue is an “outlier” from what the city is all about. They’re also what make the devastation he feels for the victims that much more potent.
“The way you combat hate and darkness is to add positivity and light to the world,” Cowen said. “When we see something horrific like this, it doubles our commitment to be stronger Jews, and increase our positivity in the face of cold-blooded and fanatical hatred.”
Police arrested the gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, on Saturday after he entered the Tree of Life Congregation armed with an AR-15 and three handguns. He killed 11 people and engaged responding officers in gunfire, reportedly while expressing his hatred for Jewish people. Federal prosecutors are now seeking a death penalty against Bowers.
Temple Beth El will hold a memorial service for the victims this Friday, prior to its weekly Shabbat service. By coincidence, the temple will host a special guest speaker, Gordon Whitman, a national faith-based community organizer and published author.
During the service, members of the temple will light 11 candles, one for each person who lost their life while praying and honoring their faith.
To Temple Beth El member Gina Rimson, Saturday’s incident is a stark reminder of what she cited as a “sharp rise” in anti-Semitism.
“Everybody was shocked,” she said of her temple’s reactions to the incident. “It’s your worst nightmare come true for anybody who’s religious and attends your place of worship.”
While she didn’t want to speak for her temple, she offered her personal view of issues the incident brings to attention, like a need to control assault rifle possession and an alarming prevalence in bigotry during a time of change.
“I guess these people feel like they’re losing something,” she said of people like the attacker. “They’re lashing out at immigrants, anybody that’s not like them. This is a real slap in the face, a wake-up call to people who didn’t know about the anti-Semitism going on.”
With the holiday season on the horizon, Cowen said pushing optimism among the youth is the way to address feelings of fear and negativity from incidents like this.
“I see that throughout history, these values of care for Jewish life, love and solidarity that were displayed after the shooting far outshine the negativity,” he said. “It wasn’t so long ago that negativity wasn’t shunned. It was acceptable.”
Rimson mentioned that in the wake of the tragedy, locals left bouquets of flowers at the temple door. She called it an act of “compassion and condolence.”
“We have to speak out for any ethnic group or religion that has been persecuted,” she said. “People feel ways about brown skin or black skin or Native Americans. Those parents have a reckoning too. We want to teach our children to recognize this kind of behavior and stand up for themselves.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.