This week, a federal jury condemned to death the man found guilty of shooting 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This horrific incident in 2018 – the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history – left Jewish communities across the country reeling.
According to the New York Times, the congregation has decided to return to using the building as its place of worship again, and that it would also serve as a “center for communal events and a place for people from all over the world to learn about confronting hatred.”
This event and its aftermath will remain emblazoned on our collective memory as the ultimate act of antisemitic hatred, but occurrences like this are, thank G-d, few and far between. Sadly, when you evaluate where the multitude of reported incidents of antisemitic behavior occur, it’s in schools and on college campuses. So, logically, that’s where we’ve decided to focus our attention on confronting hate.
Our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) received a $40,000 grant from the state for the third year in a row designated to fight hate and antisemitism. Part of this money will be allocated to provide microgrants to fund Juneteenth programs at our synagogues and partner agencies, but the bulk of it will be put to use in our schools.
We are launching a new teen cohort called Teen Interfaith Community Leaders Against Hate and Antisemitism. Yes, it’s a mouthful. The adult version of this program, led by Rabbi Rob Tobin, has been doing wonderful work bringing faith leaders across the community to build relationships and greater understanding and to bring back what they learn to their congregations. For the teen cohort, we will identify student leaders in various faith groups across the community, bring them together to engage in dialogue and learn from one another, and teach them how to model empathetic and accepting behavior for their peers.
The other program we will fund will be based at Rutgers Newark, where a there’s been a prevalence of antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment. The plan is to take a group of students – an equal number of Jewish and non-Jewish influential student leaders – on a subsidized study mission to Israel in January. This will be an opportunity for students to meet Jewish and Arab Israelis and to take a deep dive into the complexities of the issues that for many seem very black and white. They will then return to their campus armed with the information they need to speak knowledgeably about the topic in their social circles and networks.
The verdict in Pittsburgh this week sent a message to the survivors, to the families of the victims, and to Jews everywhere that hateful and violent acts like this will not be tolerated. But in the meantime, young people in our community are regularly perpetrating small acts of aggression against their Jewish classmates.
Our JCRC committee feels very strongly that the most effective way to make inroads against antisemitism is to reach people at a young age. And we are committed to using the funds provided to us by the state to ensure that we can reach as many young people as possible with a message of listening, understanding, and accepting that all people, no matter their religion, have a right to express their beliefs without fear of aggression, or worse.