By Matthew I. Hirsch
The murder of 11 Jewish people in Pittsburgh triggers a range of emotions — on the one hand, grief, sadness and despair for lost souls, killed in cold blood as they gathered for Shabbat worship. On the other, anger, frustration and a desire for vengeance, aimed at hate-filled, well-armed anti-Semites who openly and proudly broadcast their blood-thirsty desire to kill Jews. And behind these feelings, there’s the lurking question of what is happening in America and why is it happening now?
Precipitating the madman’s murderous spree was his belief that his America was facing an existential threat from immigrants. His last post on social media complained of an onslaught of invading immigrants that would “kill our people.” Obviously motivated by a constant screed of inflammatory news from the anti-immigrant right about the arrival of immigrants from Central America and the threat this presented to his way of life, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Using too-easily obtainable weapons and ammunition, he found a soft target — a synagogue, just starting to fill with Jews, in the peaceful, tolerant neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. There, he coolly took aim and killed 11 worshippers and wounded four police officers before being taken into custody. The killer was taken to a public hospital where, even as he was screaming about Jew-killing, he was treated for his wounds — by a Jewish doctor and a Jewish nurse, among others.
As a proud Jewish-American, I am wounded by these acts and troubled by the atmosphere that has led to a greater than 50 percent increase in anti-Jewish violence in the recent past.
What is the cause? Where does it come from? Who bears responsibility? How can it change?
The answers to these questions lie in each of us. Activism matters. Voting matters. Speaking out matters. Complacency equals complicity.
Perhaps the easiest way to be an activist for change is to contribute money to organizations who will do your activism for you. Another way is to attend rallies, call your representatives and send e-mails and letters to your elected officials decrying their cowardly inaction and insisting that they use their influence to stop gun-stoked violence aimed at minorities, including immigrants.
As he was preparing to kill Jews during Shabbat services, the killer took a moment to condemn HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS is a more than 100-year-old organization, created by Jews to help other Jews fleeing pogroms and poverty in Europe to settle in America. In later decades, HIAS helped individuals destroyed by the Nazi Holocaust to rebuild their lives in America, then aided Jews chased from their homes in the Arab and Persian world resettle in America, then found homes in America for Jews fleeing persecution in the former Soviet Union.
In more recent years, HIAS’ mission has changed. As the imperative of Jewish immigration has slackened, HIAS has broadened its outreach and now provides refugee resettlement and other services to all immigrants who come in need. The organization’s services include representing indigent asylum seekers, helping immigrants to qualify for citizenship, offering legal support for victims of crimes and domestic violence, educating new arrivals on how to navigate public services and survive in a new, strange environment.
HIAS does not provide money for people trying to reach American soil. HIAS does not promote immigration to the United States. HIAS does not help criminal aliens or terrorists find a safe-haven here. Mostly, as it has for 120 years, HIAS helps the defenseless and the vulnerable. Under the Hebrew rubric of tikkun olam, or “heal the world,” HIAS — like many immigrant rights groups and volunteer agencies, including faith-based organizations like Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Family Services — provides help to newly-arrived immigrants who need the support.
Their new motto: “We welcome refugees not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish.”
So, if you want to respond to the killing of Jews in Pittsburgh, or to the threat of the alt-right in Charlottesville, or to the increase in anti-Semitic incidents, or to the hate-filled rhetoric aimed at immigrants, consider supporting the work of those organizations the anti-Semites love to hate.
Matthew I. Hirsch is an immigration attorney and member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.