Dear Friends,

In my initial draft of this newsletter, I wrote about events of this past week in our country,  where  a  hate-filled  U.S.  citizen  mailed  life-threatening  bombs  to  current and past political leaders. I had also written about the past few months in Roanoke, where antisemitic fliers were posted around college campuses, news organizations, and at both local synagogues. Then, just before the bulletin was to go to print, the tragic  assault  occurred  at  the  Tree  of  Life Synagogue  in  Pittsburgh,  the  deadliest antisemitic  attack  ever  in  the  American  Jewish  
community.  We  are  heartbroken about this tragic and senseless loss of life at the hands of a lone antisemitic gunman. His actions represent the worst of humanity. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the victims and to the entire Pittsburgh Jewish community.

Debate will continue over so many aspects of this tragedy, and I encourage all of you to continue to exercise your  civic  voting  rights  and  correspondence  with  elected  officials.  Our  country  allows  extremists  and mentally compromised individuals legal access to assault-style weapons like the one used by the Pittsburgh gunman. Antisemitic acts have increased 57% since 2016, mostly in the form of harassment and vandalism (Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, Cal State University, San Bernardino). Our country is divided politically,  and  public  rhetoric  has  been  increasingly  inflammatory.  Our  increasing  reliance  on  electronic media  distorts  the  
way  we  experience  our  lives  and  relationships  with  people  of  different  political  and religious beliefs and cultures. Even more concerning, extremist individuals and hate groups who have always been around are capitalizing anew on our present-day uncertainties to encourage fear and hatred. Prayer only goes so far in addressing these issues; our tradition encourages civic, social and political action.

On  behalf  of  the  Board  of  Directors  of  Beth  Israel  and  as  its  spiritual  leader,  I can  say that  our  Board  is disgusted by these recent events and we take them all extremely seriously.  Even prior to this most recent tragic  event  in  Pittsburgh,  we  have  been  working   closely  with  appropriate  authorities  to  investigate  all potential  threats,  which  in  my  experience  at  Beth  Israel  have  included  “prank”  calls,  occasional  negative contacts
through our website, and the recent posting of antisemitic fliers around Roanoke. Nevertheless, the Board of Directors is taking new steps to review security procedures, including alarm systems and security cameras. We recently added additional armed security personnel for our high-holiday services, and a review of day-to-day security staffing needs has been initiated. We also are in the process of forming a new team of congregant leaders to work together in a permanent and ongoing fashion to review policies and procedures, including  adding  additional  training  of  staff  and  congregants,  and  interfacing  with  the  broader  Jewish community  and  appropriate  government  and  police  authorities.  No  level  of  tolerance  of  antisemitism  is considered appropriate.

I will do my best to communicate to you openly if new information becomes available. In addition, I will also be working closely with local government, faith, and minority communities to foster education and open dialogue and understanding about issues of difference in cultural, political, and religious beliefs.  I will be reaching out to you occasionally to join me in these discussions.

As your spiritual leader, my door is open to further process this episode with you emotionally and spiritually. Beth Israel’s community is joining with Temple Emanuel on October 30 for an evening of solidarity, prayer, reflection and mourning.  Roanoke’s civic and clerical leaders have offered their support and condolences, and I will continue to speak out on behalf of the Jewish Community and against antisemitism. We can and will preserve our faith and trust in the goodness of our Roanoke community, and in the safety of our worship and communal spaces. May we all continue to stand strong together in solidarity and in peace.

Rabbi Jama Purser