A Prayer for Squirrel Hill—And for American Jewry

The Pittsburgh synagogue killings show that dormant hatreds have reawakened.

FreedomMaster / Getty

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

When Rabbi Joseph Miller learned of the Squirrel Hill massacre, less than a mile from his own pulpit, he ordered the doors of his synagogue locked. Despite his congregants’ terror that they would be next, they recited the mi sheberach. They didn’t pray for their own protection; they prayed for the healing of others.

An ancestor of mine died in synagogue. He lived in western Ukraine, where the Holocaust arrived suddenly in the form of Einsatzgruppen, death squads pushing ever east, traversing dirt roads and deep forest to cleanse even the most remote villages of Jews. When the Nazis arrived in his town, my great-great-grandfather was deep in prayer at the synagogue. The Nazis locked the doors of the small wooden structure and then set it aflame. It is a story that cannot be unheard. When I stand in my synagogue and my mind meanders, I often wonder what he prayed at that moment.

The Sabbath is a rupture in the architecture of time, a day set apart. For those who practice the ritual, it is a moment of disconnection from the week—a temporal void that is supposed to be kept clear of work, technology, and concern for material things. The Sabbath has evolved, by design, to be a moment of vulnerability, where secular armor is placed in the spiritual locker, permitting connection with God.

As a young man traveling across Europe in the 1990s, I went to attend services in Amsterdam, to listen to the reading of the Torah and sing ancient liturgy. Throughout my life I had experienced the Sabbath as a moment of uncommon generosity, when doors were flung open and extra settings placed at the table. I felt like an invader, however, when I approached the brick fence of the Dutch synagogue.

There was no usher to greet me, no old man to point me in the direction of a prayer book and a kippah. A bald Israeli sat behind thick glass, next to an iron turnstile, and asked for my passport. He viewed me as a potential assailant, which was entirely understandable, given the dangers of the world. But it also made it impossible for me to feel the comfort that is the precondition for spirituality.

Many years later, I stood outside my own synagogue in Washington, D.C. It was a shirtsleeves spring day with a breeze so perfect that it felt set by thermostat. To celebrate Israel’s birthday, the Hebrew school hosted a fair on a plaza. As I watched my kids make their way from game to game, then dance with abandon, I saw two Israeli journalists I knew. They began to ask anthropological questions about the event they were witnessing. One of them paused to marvel at the normality (or is it abnormality?) of Jewish existence in America, so free from anxiety and from a sense of vulnerability. It was as if the spectacle on display obviated the need for celebration, he quipped. Perhaps America was another Zion.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) has been reported as a source of the anti-Semitic rage of Robert D. Bowers, the man allegedly responsible for killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The organization was an expression of the achievement of American Jewry. There has been only a small trickle of Jewish immigrants to aid since the exodus from the Soviet Union, so the beneficent hand is extended to strangers. Instead of pulling up the ladder of self-advancement behind it, HIAS attempted to boost others up that ladder. Perhaps this impulse toward generosity motivated Bowers to murder.

In Donald Trump’s abhorrence for globalism and in his inability to smack down David Duke, it was easy to hear the ominous chords of history, to see how he was activating dormant hatreds with his conspiratorial tropes. But it was always easy to see how Jews, with their well-developed institutions and communal resources, were not the most vulnerable targets of Trump’s racialism. I felt pride that so much of the organized Jewish community resisted the impulse to elevate its own problems above those of the more vulnerable.

Of course, this was not every corner of the Jewish community. After the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gary Cohn couldn’t bring himself to resign from his job. After Squirrel Hill, Jared Kushner and Sheldon Adelson will likely stand their ground. In response to this massacre, every synagogue will protect itself with great security, with more cameras and more guards. They will do what is necessary to create a sense of safety, which will also invariably inhibit the sense of escaping from the secular world. The gunman committed a crime on Shabbat, and it will reverberate as a crime against Shabbat.

Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.

When I pray in synagogue next, I will mourn the human beings who were murdered as they participated in the ritual celebrating the miracle of existence, who weren’t able to finish their prayer for the healing of the world. With a sunken stomach, I will feel connected to the arc of Jewish history.