Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh president and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein said he hopes to deliver a message of unity on Independence Day, when he takes the stage to light a torch at the annual ceremony.
“In Pittsburgh, we have a strong sense of unity, not uniformity,” Finkelstein told The Jerusalem Post. “We work together for the greater good of our community. I think and I hope that is a message that is important for Israelis.”
Finkelstein will represent the Pittsburgh Jewish community, which suffered the bloodiest antisemitic attack to ever occur on US soil when on October 27, 2018, a white supremacist stormed the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill and murdered 11 Shabbat worshipers.
Six months later, another white nationalist attacked the Chabad congregation in Poway, California, murdering one congregant and wounding three others. Finkelstein said that the Poway attack deeply affected many members of his own community.
“One of the things we learned from the shooting in Pittsburgh is that somewhere between 8% and 21% of our community is going to have a diagnosis of mental health trauma from what happened, and events like what happened in Poway or New Zealand re-trigger this trauma for some people in our community,” he explained.
But he also said that Poway drove home another message: “Haters don’t care about our labels.”
In Poway, it was a Chabad congregation that was attacked. In Pittsburgh, it was the Tree of Life building; inside were two Conservative congregations and a Reconstructionist shul.
Finkelstein said that in the United States, antisemitism is on the rise, on both the Right and the Left. He said that because the shooting attacks were perpetrated by far-Right nationalists, there is a lot of talk about “their kind of hate.” However, he believes antisemitism is equally as prevalent in the far Left. “It is just often hidden as anti-Israel,” he said.
“I think we should think about that and how we can be more cohesive, more unified and working more together for the greater good of the Jewish people,” Finkelstein said. “We need to be working together much more.”
He said he does not think that the far Right or the far Left will become mainstream in the US, but that the Jewish community is nonetheless threatened by a striking rise in antisemitic sentiment and attack.
A recent report by the ADL found that the number of Jews physically assaulted in the US has more than doubled in 2018 compared to 2017 figures.
Finkelstein said the solution to antisemitism is a combination of education and outreach.
At the same time, in Pittsburgh, the Jewish community is working with the Secure Community Network to better secure their buildings against a future attack. Additionally, Pittsburgh is working to secure federal dollars for the establishment of resiliency center that could offer ongoing support and services to the victims, families, employees and wider community affected by the Tree of Life massacre.
“Eleven people were murdered inside that building,” Finkelstein said. “You have people who were survivors, too. One of them lost her 97-year-old mother, who was sitting next to her.
“I don’t think they know what is going to happen to that facility,” he continued. “It has only been six months. And it is a horrible scene for those of us who have been inside. And the synagogue, in partnership with the rest of the community, has to determine what the future should bring.”
He said that in the meantime, the congregations have been sharing space with other shuls.
“Our community has been incredibly resilient,” he said. “But it’s a new normal.”
Finkelstein said he looks forward to honoring “these 11 kedoshim (holy martyrs)” at the ceremony on Wednesday.
“Yom Hazikaron is a day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and a day to memorialize victims of terrorism,” Finkelstein said. “I feel like I am here representing those 11 victims, the injured, the people in the building and everyone who helped.
“I am in love with Israel, and have been for a very long time,” he continued, “So this has deep meaning for me as well.”
Jewish Agency for Israel head Isaac Herzog hailed the government selecting Finkelstein to light a torch as a “wise choice.”
“Israel and the Diaspora share a common destiny – in moments of joy and grief,” he said.