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