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UM Jewish Community Calls for Conversation Following Pittsburgh Attacks

Story contributed by journalism student Logan Williamson

After the news broke that a shooting in Pittsburgh killed 11 members of the Jewish community during a Shabbat service, Oxford Jewish community members reacted with shock, sadness and anger.

Wendy Goldberg, a member of the UM Jewish community, described her overall emotion as “sad” after being alerted of the massacre.

“Other mass shootings have happened at random places, but the synagogue shooting was a direct attack on Jewish people. There is a difference between unhinged rage and an example of a shooting that puts a target on your back,” she said.

As a member of the Jewish community, Goldberg said she can imagine herself at the scene of the shooting.

“I can picture myself standing in synagogue services with my back to the door,” she said.

Katherine Levingston is the president of the UM Chapter of Hillel, a national organization for Jewish student life. She said that she was shocked that Anti-Semitism still exists in this day and age.

The official log of the Jewish Federation of Oxford. Photo from Jewish Federation of Oxford’s Facebook page.

Richard Gershon, a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Oxford—a charitable organization whose purpose is to preserve Jewish communal life—said the violence angered and upset him.

“The magnitude of this one is unprecedented. Unfortunately, I’m not shocked. Hate crimes happen, and there have been targeted attacks on Jewish people before,” he said.

Jason Solinger, the faculty advisor for the UM Hillel, said he was also not shocked by the incident because of the recent history of mass shootings in the U.S.

“Gay people were shot up at a nightclub in Orlando. Black people were shot at the church in Charleston. It’s not completely surprising that people would be shot at a synagogue,” he said.

In February, the Anti-Defamation League reported that the number of Anti-Semitic incidents increased by nearly 60 percent in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported by the ADL since it started documenting incident data in the 1970s. Data from ADL revealed that 1,986 Anti-Semitic incidents were reported across the US in 2017.

Solinger said he’s uncertain whether increasing Anti-Semitism is a result of the political climate but acknowledges there should be a conversation about it.

“We need to analyze why there is a documented rise in Anti-Semitic crimes,” he said. “We can’t look at (the Pittsburgh shooting) as a one-off.”

Goldberg said there are certain matters that have emboldened hate groups to act, such as echo-chambers on social media and rhetoric from politicians.

“There is an ability of social media to find like-minded people that fuel Anti-Semitism. I think there are also statements made by politicians that are skirting anti-Semitic comments so that there are code words for Anti-Semitism,” she said.

Anti-Semitism was a “fringe element” before, according to Goldberg, but now it has become more mainstream.

Gershon said that there are people in positions of power who fail to “tamp down” the rhetoric, including the President.

“Politicians need to say that ‘we don’t accept hate in this country.’ The president needs to say that, and he has not. The majority of people don’t believe in hateful rhetoric, but the people who do are emboldened by the President,” he said.

Levingston said education is important in combatting hate, adding that it is important for people to know about the Jewish experience, identity and culture. Gershon concurred, saying that if people interacted with others of different backgrounds and saw them as “individuals and not as a label,” it could break down barriers. 

Although they realize their faith is still a problem for some, those in Oxford’s Jewish community believe the majority of Americans are accepting.

“This country has provided religious freedom not seen in other countries,” Gershon said. “I am proud to be an American, but things have to improve.”

Henry Paris, a member of the local Jewish community who helped to fund the Paris-Yates Chapel—a nondenominational place of worship on the UM campus—said this “terrible” act is not symbolic of America or what it stands for.

At the next meeting, board members of the Jewish Federation of Oxford will discuss a charitable gift that they can make in support of victims, their families and the Tree of Life Synagogue.

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