Three years since a brutal attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told Global News that he and his congregation have yet to return.
“We can’t pray in it anymore. It might be hard for people to understand that … It’s not a prayerful place,” he said.
There are plans to rebuild the synagogue with a redesign meant to commemorate the eleven victims of the massacre and to restore it as a place of worship.
“One day we will be back in the Tree of Life and the whole world is going to look at that and go, ‘Wow, look what they were able to accomplish out of the horror of that day’,” said Myers.
Myers pointed out this time of year is always difficult for him and the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill because it brings back memories of what happened on Oct. 27, 2018.
Pittsburgh police said Robert Bowers, 49, of Baldwin, Pennsylvania, entered the synagogue and went on a shooting rampage.
Investigators said Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons during Shabbat morning services, killing eight men and three women.
“There is no easy solution because we’re all in such different places this time of year,” said Myers.
“Any one of us could be having just a really splendid day and then some reminder may come of Oct. 27 and take you from a great day to a not very good day,” he added.
Shockwaves from the shooting were felt in Canada, with synagogues and Jewish day schools increasing security in the wake of the deadly attack.
“That was, in the United States and Canada, and around the world, a real day when things changed for the Jewish community,” recalled Michael Levitt, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies.
“It wasn’t that we weren’t aware that anti-Semitism was out there … but this brought to the surface the vulnerability of Jews again around the world,” said Levitt. “Even in our own community, we’ve seen a rise in Jew hate, especially over this COVID period.”
Amid the pandemic, the anti-vaccine movement has used Holocaust imagery to portray government measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“Canada is a place of of free speech, of debate, of democracy, but there are lines and the notion that there can be any comparison between the plight of Jews and many other groups in the Second World War and during the Holocaust and people who don’t believe in vaccines and don’t believe in public health measures, the notion that there’s any comparison is odious and vile and completely inappropriate,” said Levitt.
Holocaust educator Carson Phillips, who is the managing director at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, called the use of Holocaust imagery in anti-vaccine protests “a vile example of Holocaust distortion.”
“Holocaust distortion, in some ways, is more insidious perhaps than other forms of Holocaust denial because it looks innocent, it looks as if it’s not nefarious, when in reality, these really erroneous comparisons of the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust to the anti-vax movement, regardless of what your position is, is really a misunderstanding of history,” he explained.
Phillips said it is particularly dangerous because it fuels racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories.
He pointed to a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric online and on social media.
“A lot of online hate, anti-Semitism, anti-racism, these concepts, a lot of them are being disseminated through online … it gets around the world, it gets from one community to another, one person to another within seconds and I think that’s really a large factor that we have to educate about, about the dangers of online hate and anti-Semitism,” he added.
On Nov. 1, Holocaust Education Week begins with a focus on dispelling the myths and misinformation that fuel anti-Semitism and hatred.
“We have a responsibility to educate ourselves and in doing so, perhaps our neighbors and our friends who innocently may not be aware of the dangers of things like Holocaust distortion,” said Phillips.
The B’nai Brith Canada 2020 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported a record 2,610 cases of anti-Semitism last year, up 18.3 per cent from 2019.
The Jewish advocacy group reported 61 violent incidents in May 2021, calling it the highest ever reported in one month by B’nai Brith, dating back to the birth of the audit in 1982.
“It used to be that anti-Semitic behavior would be veiled. You wouldn’t see it outright, you wouldn’t see it in workplaces or on college campuses or in other of these institutions. It’s not veiled anymore, and that is remarkably problematic,” said Levitt.
“It lays a challenge for us and the challenge is we need to continue working to educate to build ally ship and ensure that we don’t stand alone in this in this fight to combat anti-Semitism,” said Levitt.