Oceanside, Island Park rabbis react to synagogue shooting

Groups organize a vigil in memory of the victims


In the wake of a mass shooting in which 11 died at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, hundreds of local residents gathered for a vigil at the Oceanside Veterans Triangle on Long Beach Road on Tuesday, after the Herald went to press.

Rabbi Levi Gurkov, the co-director of the Chabad of Oceanside, one of the organizations hosting the event, said the vigil was meant to remember those who died and to display Jewish pride.

“The thought that came to my mind was from what we read in the Passover story,” Gurkov said. “Every generation, they rise up and try to persecute; however, the Jewish people persevere. . . . People should know that we are here and we are proud.”

The Chabad hosted the vigil with the Friedberg Jewish Community Center, also in Oceanside, the Hewlett/East Rockaway Jewish Centre, the Oceanside Jewish Center, Temple Avoda and Young Israel of Oceanside. The Stop & Shop in Oceanside provided candles for the event, while Island Park-based Appco Paper & Plastics Corporation also donated supplies.

Shortly before 10 a.m. on Saturday, Richard Bowers walked into the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire.

According to multiple reports, Bowers, 46, had posted an anti-Jewish message at 9:49 a.m. on his Gab social media account that read: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Five minutes later, a 911 call was made to the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center about an active shooter. Police were dispatched. Shots were exchanged. Bullets from Bowers’s AR-15 assault rifle and possibly three handguns struck 17 people, killing 11 and injuring six, including four police officers. According to police, his words after being taken into custody were, “All these Jews need to die.”

Bowers, who was also shot, was charged by federal officials with 29 criminal counts, including obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs — a hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder. He also faces state charges, including 11 counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.

Reacting to the shooting, Rabbi Uri Goren, of Temple Avodah on Oceanside Road in Oceanside, said he was a strong proponent of stricter gun laws. “We can’t really comprehend it, and the idea that it would happen in the United States is even more confusing,” he said. “The idea that anybody can just get those types of weapons is just even more confusing.”

Goren, who emigrated to the U.S. from Chile in the early 1980s, said that these issues are a tragic reflection of the need for stricter gun laws and noted that weapons weren’t as easily accessible in Chile, and a tragedy of this magnitude hasn’t happened there. “People without guns cannot commit mass murder,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Immediately after news broke, many took to social media, especially Twitter, to react to the mass shooting. It was the 294th such incident this year in the U.S. A mass shooting is defined as four or more individuals being shot or killed in the same general time and location.

Anti-Semitism appeared to be a motive for the shooting, as Bowers targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for his ire. It is a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees. The Anti-Defamation League has reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose by 57 percent in 2017, from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986. It was the largest increase since the ADL began tracking in 1979.

Only once since 1979 has the ADL recorded more incidents: 2,066 in 1994. Since then, the incidents had mostly declined. There were small increases in 2014 and 2015. Then, in 2016, the count began to rise significantly.

Rabbi Paul Hoffman, of the South Shore Jewish Center on Long Beach Road in Island Park, said that in the face of anti-Semitism, Jews have shown an innate ability to overcome. He noted, however, that it’s difficult to rationalize what happened in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t know that as human beings we are born with a coping mechanism for murder,” he said. “It’s something that’s very, very difficult to deal with.”

The South Shore Jewish Center organized its own vigil on Monday evening after the Herald went to press. Hoffman said he expected as many as 100 people to show up and honor the lives that were lost in Pittsburgh.

He added that it was important for him to be there for his congregation in such a dark time. “I think they look up to their spiritual leader in times of despair,” he said. “In times of happiness and in times of despair, everyone wants a rabbi. Everyone is looking for an answer to the question, and there is no answer to the question. There is only hope and love.”