Nurturing Tree Of Life
Beginning in 1880, before the words “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were stamped on the Statue of Liberty dedicated 132 years ago, Jewish refugees fleeing violent pogroms in Europe were often met in New York Harbor by volunteers from the city’s teeming immigrant community. “Jewish people going down to the docks, meeting the boats coming from Ellis Island, providing kosher meals, helping people reunite with their family members and get jobs” is how Melanie Nezer described the early years of what started as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and is today simply known as HIAS. “That’s what we do today — the only thing that’s changed is that the people that we’re helping aren’t necessarily Jewish.” The world has more refugees than any time in its history, and wherever people are seeking safe harbor — from war-torn Syria to America’s southern border — HIAS is there. The truth is that not many Americans were paying much attention to the good work HIAS is doing. One of the few who did was a 46-year-old loner in his Pittsburgh apartment — the kind of man who said very little to his actual neighbors but had quite a lot to say in a cyber world of rank racial and religious hatred and white male supremacy. The man who would become the alleged perpetrator of the deadliest attack targeting Jews in the 242-year history of the United States had harbored irrational anti-Semitic rage for some time. The future gunman — in keeping with the long-standing practice of this column, I won’t glorify him by using his name — had a beef with President Trump, but it was that Trump was somehow too moderate, a tool of a bogus international Jewish conspiracy. Even so, the Pittsburgher’s online postings made it clear his warped mind was being taken to new, dangerous places by the rhetoric coming from right-wing media and the highest levels of the Republican Party, including a president who has taken to outbursts against “globalists,” long a buzzword of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. As reports surged, especially on Fox News and right-wing outlets, about the migrant caravan wending its way across Guatemala and Mexico, the alleged gunman’s posts on a hate-filled site called Gab grew more frenetic. He posted a picture of refugees entering a truck with a Star of David emblem right around the same time that Fox and GOP officials were promoting unfounded theories that liberal billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish, was financing the caravan. Although HIAS, which has provided lawyers and other support for asylum-seekers on the U.S. southern border, has nothing to do with the caravan, the angry Pittsburgher blamed them nonetheless. Earlier this month, he directed an angry post toward HIAS asking, “Do you like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Saturday, he wrote this: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” At 9:45 a.m., police say, he burst into the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 assault rifle, a Glock and two handguns. Within moments, 11 worshippers lay dead and several more people were wounded. One of the dead was a 97-year-old woman — old enough to be alive during the Holocaust only to be murdered amid the hatreds of 21st-century America. The synagogue shooting knocked out of the headlines several days of breathless news reports about the 56-year-old “lost soul” in South Florida who found a purpose and arguably a father figure in Donald Trump, and then terrorized Trump’s enemies in the media and Democratic politics with pipe bombs. Forgotten was the tale of an unhinged Kentucky man who reportedly tried to shoot up an African American church in Louisville and, thwarted by a locked door, went to Kroger and murdered the first two black shoppers he saw. The last time Americans felt such despair bordering on hopelessness came when 1968 was shattered by the gunshots that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The circumstances are different. The dead are innocent everyday Americans who were merely trying to pray or buy groceries, the killers are avatars of a lost generation of middle-aged white men, and they are enabled by hateful rhetoric that comes from the very top, including a “nationalist” president. Many were quick to point out that Saturday’s synagogue shooting occurred just three blocks from the longtime home of one of Pittsburgh’s most famous residents, the late children’s TV icon Fred Rogers. “What changes the world?” Mr. Rogers asked once. “The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound and be shared.” It was also Rogers who told children that, in times of trouble, look for the helpers. In Pittsburgh, the helpers were everywhere. It starts with the remarkable courage of the police officers who heard the gunfire and raced toward it. But it also includes the thousands who took to the streets of Squirrel Hill to demonstrate the power of love. But you don’t have to live in Pittsburgh to take a stand. This is the right time to take notice of the unsung compassion and humanity of groups like HIAS that help the world’s most desperate people and support what they do. One of the many emails that poured into HIAS on Saturday night, Nezer said, carried the subject line: “What he hated was the best in us.” Indeed. The only known antidote to hate is love. The only real way to fight back against Saturday’s insanity in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood is to look for the helpers. One way to make sure that violence does not utterly destroy what’s left of our democracy is to follow the words that were chanted by vigil attendees Saturday night: “Vote, vote, vote!” But if you have a few dollars to spare, please consider making a contribution to HIAS in the name of the Tree of Life victims. By supporting the work of HIAS, we’ll be taking one small step back toward where America stood in 1886, when helping people yearning to breathe free was still our basic humanity. WILL BUNCH is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.