AP NEWS

Katy Jewish community not surprised by anti-Semitic attacks

November 1, 2018 GMT

Erin Walper, 46, was in her hotel room in Austin when she heard the news that a man had allegedly walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 people during Shabbat services.

Walper, who’s Jewish and has lived in her home in the Green Trails subdivision in the Katy area for eight years, once had ties to Squirrel Hill — the neighborhood in which the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27 took place. She lived just a few blocks down the road from Tree of Life and up until she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, called Squirrel Hill her home.

“It’s very surreal to turn on the TV or to listen to the news and have the place that you’re most familiar with in the world be talked about when discussing these things,” the mother of two said. “It’s just weird. It’s the last place that I would have expected for this to happen.”

The Katy-area Jewish community, while shaken, was not surprised by the anti-Semitic Pittsburgh attack that for many felt “close to home.” They are standing strong, with head rabbis sending messages of solidarity to their own congregants and outward to the Houston community.

On Friday, Congregation Or Ami and Temple Sinai — two Katy-area synagogues — will participate in Show Up For Shabbat, a worldwide call for action in response to the Pittsburgh shooting put on by the Global Jewish Advocacy.

Walper, who is a board of trustee at Congregation Or Ami, a conservative synagogue in West Houston, said she is “completely blown away” by the anti- Semitic attacks on the congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“I never thought that would happen in Squirrel Hill, but I hate to say this in general — me and many other people have gotten numb to these kind of attacks,” she said.

Congregation Or Ami Head Rabbi Gideon Estes and others in the Houston Jewish community lead a vigil Sunday night in honor of the 11 congregants killed in Pittsburgh. On Monday, he was at temple tending to the family of a member of his congregation who had just died.

“Personally, it causes for a gamut of emotions — anger, fear, sadness. Resolve to fight for a better world and to stand up to all kinds of injustice,” Estes said in regards to the shooting. “It’s a sadness; a desire to comfort and help those who are suffering.”

Estes said he was comforted by the responses and support he received by friends, family, members of other religious communities and law enforcement who came out to Sunday night’s vigil and “stood with us shoulder to shoulder.”

“My answer to all of this is that I maintain hope,” he said. “That’s where my faith comes in and my trust in God is that we have to have hope and hope sustains us, because if I lose hope then they win.”

The deaths of the congregants hits close to home, because of how similar the two congregations are to each other, he said. Both are relatively small and on the suburbs of larger cities, he said.

The attacks felt “personal and close because it’s an attack on a place where we’re supposed to be safest. Literally, inside the sanctuaries of the synagogue,” Estes said.

The 46-year-old man who is alleged to be responsible for the attacks pleaded not guilty in a federal courtroom Thursday after a grand jury issued a 44-count indictment that charged him with murder, hate crimes and a slew of other charges, according to the Associated Press. During the attack, he is reported have shouted at “all Jews must die” as he began shooting at congregants.

“It’s unnerving to know that someone wants to murder me in my house of worship just because I’m a Jew,” Estes said. “There aren’t words. I did not expect that. I knew always there are anti-Semites in this country, but that they feel emboldened to leave their basement dungeons… that’s what’s scary to me.”

Following the fatal anti-Semitic attack Saturday, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt called it “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”

“It is simply unconscionable for Jews to be targeted during worship on a Sabbath morning, and unthinkable that it would happen in the United States of America in this day and age,” Greenblatt said.

Temple Sinai Head Rabbi Annie Belford was hesitant to point fingers at any “political party or political situation, because I think that that’s far too simplistic.”

“There are a lot of things that are happening in our society and I think it really won’t be until we have the benefit of hindsight and a little bit more calm in people’s mind until we can say this is why this is happening,” said Belford, who has lived in the Katy area for 10 years.

The fatal attacks on the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh is “heartbreaking, but sadly not surprising,” Belford said.

A spike in anti-Semitic violence proven by FBI data two years in a row and the recent pipe bomb incidents where top Democrats and George Soros were targeted; and the fatal shooting of two Black men at a Kroger last week in Kentucky has left her concerned. she said.

“I’m personally so sad and angry, but that this is how our society has become,” Belford said. “This is not how our world should be.”

But Belford is all too familiar with anti-semitism in the Katy area, she said. She’s dealt with it with children who attend her youth program since she’s moved into town.

“Every single child that graduates from our program, that graduates from high school - every single one - has faced some kind of anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic incident,” she said. “Some of it is religious faith, that we’re going to hell because we don’t believe in Jesus. And some of it happens when they’re very young, when they’re in elementary school.”

Walper agrees.

“There is not a lot of understanding about Judaism,” Walper said, adding that her children have faced similar experiences in school.

But the reason that (the shooting in Pittsburgh) is scary “is that could have happened to any of us,” Belford said.

“Tree of Life synagogue is every synagogue. We are all of them,” Belford said. “The people that were killed at Tree of Life synagogue are the people that come to all of our synagogues. We didn’t know them, and yet we know them. They are our grandparents, and our doctors and the members of community who we love and I think that’s why it’s so painful. We are all connected in that way.”

She encourages her congregants to stay true to their values of inclusion and to move forward without hate; to put out kindness and love.

“Because that matters,” she said. “It matters in this world today.”

The Katy area has three synagogues, but no synagogues are within the Katy city limits, said Taryn Baranowski, chief marketing officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

Congregation Or Ami and Temple Sinai are both in West Houston. Chabad of West Houston is the other Katy area synagogue. Rabbi Dovid Goldstein did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re all on heightened alert ... and we’re in the initial phases,” said Baranowski, said in regards to security at local synagogues. “Groups have been in contact with law enforcement and we’re going to be having some conversations within the community just to provide resources to people.”

Temple Sinai and Congregation Or Ami have armed guards for Shabbat services. Estes said due to the recent attacks in Pittsburgh, the administration decided to have an armed guard for Friday Shabbat services as well. It also has a gate.

“I think I feel safer at synagogue in some ways,” Walper said. “And because it also makes me sad that (extra security) is required.”

michelle.iracheta@chron.com