It took over a year to organize the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) annual convention at the Waldorf Astoria in Phoenix, Arizona. It took 20 minutes of savagery on the other side of the country to disrupt the program.
The excitement was palpable as college students, philanthropists and industry leaders were milling around the same lush resort that had hosted every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush.
What started off as a weekend focused on technological, humanitarian and medical feats attributed to Israel and the strength and diversity of American Jewry, ended up being unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Some 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away, 11 Americans were shot dead because of their Jewishness, for belonging to the same faith that the JNF was celebrating.
Along with 150 college students who had hiked up the cacti-filled Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountains at dawn on Saturday morning, we returned to the resort in somber silence as news alerts flooded our phones about a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“From very high highs, to being there for each other during the lowest low, this was a weekend to remember,” said JNF campaign executive Gali Gordon.
Hours before Friday’s opening ceremony was set to begin, dozens of hotel staff, clad in beige double-breasted blazers, stood by their four-seater golf carts, ready to transport arriving delegates to one of the 740 rooms spread throughout the resort’s 39 acres (16 hectares) of gardens and eight swimming pools.
American historian Deborah Lipstadt was slated to lead a discussion on the dangers of Holocaust denial; Izzy Ezagui would share his experiences as the world’s only one-armed special forces sharpshooter; Marlee Matlin would recount her experiences as the only deaf actress to ever win an Academy Award; and, on the final day of the conference, New York Times
opinion writer Bari Weiss would focus on the state of American Jewry and its relationship with Israel.
“We are excited to welcome Jewish National Fund’s supporters to this year’s national conference in Phoenix for an unforgettable and meaningful weekend,” said co-organizers Marc Kelman and Toni Dusik at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Weiss had given plenty of speeches before, but Sunday morning was different.
She had spoken all over the country – on television and podiums – on topics ranging from Gaza to free speech and the MeToo movement.
A different atmosphere percolated through the packed 25,000 square foot (2,300 sq.m.) Frank Lloyd Wright Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
As she approached the expansive azure stage, her face superimposed on the two large screens behind her for all 1,200 delegates to see, her head was bowed, looking down at the speech she could no longer read.
A 20-minute killing spree at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning had left 11 dead and Weiss’s neighborhood of Squirrel Hill shattered. The speech she had originally planned to make, about Israel’s relationship with American Jewry, became obsolete.
Now the 33-year-old writer would read from the op-ed she had written the day before when she was woken up by an unexpected group text from her younger sister that the synagogue in which she became a bat mitzvah had been the site of a horrific attack.
“Forgive me for changing the subject and forgive me if this is a little hard to do,” she said, her voice shaking.
The audience was silent, eyes and ears peeled to Weiss’s words about the resilience of Squirrel Hill, a tight-knit community where the famous children’s television personality Mister Rogers had once lived.
“We are living in an age when antisemitism is on the rise here at home… (but) nothing has been more powerful in my life than feeling like I am part of the Jewish story, a tiny link in the history of my people.”
Some cried. Others looked in disbelief, perhaps wondering how the deadliest attack on Jews in US history had just happened in 2018.
As soon as the shooting occurred, television interview requests had poured into Weiss’s email from media and news organizations desperate to get a scoop from one of the few high-profile public figures intimately connected to the shootings.
But Weiss postponed all media obligations until after the conference, adding that she is not one to let people down, even while her family grieves in Pittsburgh.
Her message was clear. The Jewish community was shaken, but in tragedy many found unity and strength. The shooting may have been gruesome and shocking, but many in attendance were not surprised by this latest antisemitic attack. The attack did not occur in an inexplicable vacuum.
As Weiss’s speech came to a close, and as delegates started to file out of the ballroom, three sheriffs detained a middle-aged man who stormed into the conference hall’s anteroom and unfurled a large Nazi flag, grinning and yelling.
And, for a second time that weekend, we were forced to address a tide of hate that has unfortunately trailed our history for generations.The writer is a British master’s student at Columbia Journalism School and a CAMERA Fellow. He is also an alum of the universities of Cambridge and Harvard, where he studied Arabic, Farsi and Middle Eastern studies, as well as international relations and diplomacy.
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