IN SOLIDARITY AND GRIEF
Rabbi Jordan Cohen had just gathered his congregation for a light lunch at Hamilton’s Temple Ashe Sholom Saturday when all at once, news of the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue hit the room.The members had turned on their cellphones for the first time after a morning of services at the synagogue — which unlike orthodox congregations permits the use of electronics on the Sabbath.As the news alerts poured in, the chatter subsided.“You started seeing this wave going across the room as people were getting the information and that’s went everyone went silent,” said Cohen. “Really, total shock is the only way it could be described. You could palpably see parents pulling their kids closer to them. The fact this happened at a synagogue at the same time we were doing what we do every week at our Sabbath services was just unimaginable.”Jewish communities across Canada, including Cohen’s, are planning vigils in the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead and six wounded.A Toronto woman was among those killed, according to a rabbi from one of Toronto’s oldest Jewish congregations. A statement posted on Facebook by Rabbi Yael Splansky said 75-year-old Joyce Fienberg grew up in the Holy Blossom Temple community, which is located in north Toronto and has over 6,500 members.Splansky said Fienberg was married at the temple, and her confirmation photo is on its wall of honour.“I did not know her. She was married here before my time. But I walk past her every day,” said Splansky. Deanna Levy, a spokeswoman for the temple, said the photo is of Fienberg when she was 16 years old.Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the mass shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, as a “horrific anti-Semitic attack.”“Canadians’ hearts are with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh today,” Trudeau wrote in a post on Twitter. “May the families of those murdered be comforted, and may the injured recover quickly and fully.”On Saturday, a gunman opened fire during worship services at the synagogue, killing eight men and three women, before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him. The victims’ ages range from 54 to 97 and include a pair of brothers and a husband and wife.The accused, 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers, is facing 29 criminal offences. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Monday.Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record but is believed to have expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on social media, appears to have acted alone, authorities said.In the wake of the event, Canadian police departments are increasing officer visibility around Jewish facilities.“As a precaution (Saturday), police across the country signalled to us that they would immediately increase front line police presence in Jewish neighbourhoods and around Jewish community institutions which will likely continue for the next few days,” Martin Sampson, vice-president of communications and marketing for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a non-profit organization representing Jewish federations, said in a statement. “There is nothing whatsoever to indicate an increased security threat to Canadian Jews.”Those in the Jewish community should remain vigilant and contact police immediately if they see anything suspicious, he added.Avi Benlolo, president and chief executive of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, called for tougher hate crime laws following the events, citing statistics that show an increase in incidents directed toward Canada’s Jewish community.“I always say that we know from history, the holocaust and other incidents, that anti-Semitism does lead to violence and this is a direct example,” he said in an interview. “Words can lead to violence. Therefore I believe in stronger hate crime laws so when people are spewing out venom, the law can immediately take effect and arrest these people.”A report from Statistics Canada, found that Jewish people were the target of the most hate crimes out of any religious group in 2016. Hate crimes against the Jewish population grew to 221 incidents in 2016, up from 178 incidents a year before, with the largest hikes recorded in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa’s Congregation Machzikei Hadas, whose orthodox congregation does not use electronic devices on the Sabbath, learned of the events in Pittsburgh at about 7 p.m. Saturday.“Someone gave me a heads up after Sabbath was over,” said Bulka. “I was hoping it was a hoax. Obviously the next question then, was ‘are we secure?’ ”Bulka’s synagogue, which was defaced by graffiti in 2016, is monitored by security cameras, requires members to buzz in at a locked door and employs armed guards on high holidays.“It’s an unfortunate thing but it’s nothing new and there are other places of worship that have to do it too,” he said, adding that the measures have been in place for decades. “The good out of all this is the solidarity, the coming together of the community, the emails and calls I’ve gotten from all walks of life and religions. The diabolical evil that was perpetrated has actually strengthened this community, ironically.”For Cohen too, the incidents reignite old concerns about security, particularly after his synagogue was targeted by anti-Semitic hate mail earlier this year.It’s an incredible balance we’re trying to maintain to be safe and secure but also open and welcoming,” he said. “We’re not putting armed guards at the door. Quite frankly, that’s not the kind of place we want to be in and to be honest we can’t afford it either. Are there other measures we can be taking? It’s sad that’s the conversation we have to keep having again and again.”
People mourn in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh on Sunday during a community gathering in the aftermath of Saturday’s mass shooting at the city’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Eight men and three women were killed when a gunman opened fire on worshippers.
A woman prays near the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Sunday after 11 people were killed in a shooting on Saturday. In the wake of the massacre, Canadian police departments have put more officers around Jewish facilities.
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