In Pittsburgh synagogue attack, a dark echo

A toxic climate enables the impulses of those on the fringe

AN OUTPOURING OF shock, anger, and disbelief has characterized reaction to a man walking into a Pittsburgh synagogue and slaughtering 11 people who were there on Saturday to pray on the Jewish Sabbath. Houses of worship are supposed to offer contemplative sanctuary, literal and figurative, from the vagaries and worries of daily life.

I have absolutely found a measure of that peace when attending services at the synagogue my family and I have been members of for 25 years, a place that has also brought the unbridled joy of watching both of my two daughters become a bat mitzvah. But the difficult truth for me is that those feelings of uplift and renewal while seated in our temple sanctuary have always existed uneasily alongside a starkly different sentiment I try not to dwell on: We are sitting ducks.

I can never fully escape the nagging fear that such an in-gathering provides a way for people of common faith and background to come together — and an inviting target for anyone bent on attacking Jews in large numbers.

A Star of David that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis, this one likely worn by my great-grandmother, Regina Fischer Weissmann, who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

That I can carry that feeling with me into a synagogue in Boston, birthplace of a nation long regarded as a haven from the poison of anti-Semitism that has found its way to virtually anyplace Jews have lived, is no doubt a function of my own family history.

My mother was born in Germany, and escaped with her parents at age 11 in 1939. Many others in my family did not.

Next Friday, November 9, marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Nazi marauders smashed synagogue windows, took sledgehammers to Jewish-owned businesses, and killed scores of Jews across Germany. It marked a turning point, the clearest sign yet of the far darker days to come. My mother carried through her life vivid memories of that day — and of those that followed, including being marched at gunpoint with her parents to the local police station to be registered there, part of the very orderly preparations underway for Hitler’s Final Solution.

Five months after Kristallnacht, in March 1939, my mother and her parents were part of the last waves of Jews to escape Germany. Despite the gathering storm enveloping European Jews, the US did not open its arms and allow them to enter. Instead, desperate for any refuge outside Europe, they left Germany by boat for Guatemala, where they had relatives. My mother lived there for nearly a decade before she and her parents were finally able to immigrate to New York in the late 1940s.

After retiring in the early 1990s, she returned to Guatemala and lived there for 10 years. It was the place where she came of age and still had family and friends, and she loved the country’s people, culture, and striking natural beauty. Before her return there, she offered volunteer help to a Salvadoran family in Michigan, where she lived, as part of a local sanctuary program in the 1980s for refugees who fled that country’s bloody civil war. For all the differences in their lives, she saw reflected in their plight pieces of her own story.

Because of that history, I felt a particular ache on reading reports that the killer in Pittsburgh, who ranted that all Jews must die, mixed that hate with expressions of outrage over the caravan of Central American migrants traveling toward the US border — and the role played helping those who arrive in the US by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

No one knows everything that contributed to the depraved acts of the shooter. But it’s clear that the climate in our country is one of toxic demonization of various groups that represent some form of the “other” — and that President Trump has been the chief driver of that divisiveness and attacks on marginalized populations. That includes his ongoing efforts to cast the migrant caravan as a grave threat to national security, and his entirely unfounded claims that there are dangerous Middle Easterners embedded in the group now moving through Mexico.

More than 30,000 people signed a petition from a Pittsburgh-based Jewish group asking Trump not visit there on Tuesday unless he renounced his recent claims of nationalism, a term and ideology long intertwined with anti-Semitism. Such pleadings, however, wrote Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post, are folly.

Trump cannot comply with the request to stop spreading hate,” she said. “It’s like breathing oxygen for him.”

Many American Jews feel a deep commitment to social justice — and a bond with those fleeing persecution or hardship. Opening one’s arms to them is written into our story and recited every year at Passover seders that instruct us to never forget our own time of bondage in ancient Egypt.

The president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society recently articulated that same ethos in describing the continuity between the group’s origins helping Jewish immigrants to the US in the late 19th century and its commitment today to other groups seeking refuge here. “We used to help refugees because they were Jewish, but now we help refugees because we’re Jewish,” he said.

There has been a steady drumbeat of attacks on immigrants — “an invasion of our country,” Trump called the caravan this week — along with the spreading by a Republican congressman and others on the right of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories tying Jewish financier (and Holocaust survivor) George Soros to the procession of migrants. All of it created the fertile ground for unhinged characters like the man responsible for the slaughter in Pittsburgh.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

I know the fears I carry into a synagogue are mostly irrational carryovers from the experience decades ago of my mother and her family. But I think that a little less now.