A Santa Monica Rabbi’s Thoughts on Violence in Pittsburgh
On October 25th, a man named Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shouting anti-Semitic slurs and wielding an assault rifle. Bowers killed 11 people. The massacre is one of the worse attacks against the Jewish community in the United States in decades- and arrives during the tail end of an exhausting political season.
The violence in Pittsburgh has sparked conversations about anti-Semitism in the United States, the presence of firearms in places of worship, and gun control at large. All topics Local Santa Monica Rabbi, Isaac Levitansky, is no stranger to. “We had a bomb sent to us once,” he laments, fortunately no one was hurt and the perpetrator was arrested.
Sitting inside his synagogue, Chabad House, Levitansky appears thoughtful, he speaks consciously and intentionally. When asked what the Jewish community’s response to the violence has been like, the Rabbi pauses: “People are awakened by it. They are reaching out. We’re encouraging people to come to the synagogue as much as possible. That was our initial response to what happened. The shooter’s purpose in doing this type of thing is to try to close down the synagogues, our response is to fill up the synagogues. We can’t let them win.”
Prosecutors working on the Bowers case are currently seeking the death penalty for the assailant, a criminal procedure who’s justness Rabbi Levitansky is unsure of, “I think he should be taken off the streets. I think the issue of the death penalty is very complicated, I don’t have all the details.”
In wake of the tragedy at Pittsburgh, President Trump has decreed that the killings could have all been avoided, had armed guards been in place. "If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him," Trump told CNN reporters, a security measure that many religious institutions, which are often defined by inclusivity and openness, have resorted to in recent years. The Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia, hired a security guard ahead of a white nationalist rally in the city last year. And since then, armed guards have become “a fixture at our synagogue for the past 15 months,” synagogue President Alan Zimmerman wrote in a column for USA Today.
The presence of firearms in places of worship is another topic Rabbi Isaac Levitansky finds complicated. “Any deterrent is that, a deterrent. Would having armed guards had helped? Maybe. But If somebody is adamant about doing something, they can find ways around whatever layers of security might be in place.”
When asked what steps need to be taken in order to prevent another massacre from happening, Levitansky suggests turning to spirituality, encouraging everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish, to begin practicing the “Seven Universal Laws," which places an emphasis on respect. Respect for human life, for property, for family, thus paving a path towards peace. Additionally, Levitansky stresses the importance of reflection and insists that, “Taking a moment of silence, each day, would allow people to think deeply about what is right and wrong. Which could help stop the spread of violence.”