UB religious leaders discuss unity and increased security following Poway attack

The Jewish community is focusing on strength and unity this week following the shooting at the Chabad of Poway in California on Saturday. 

A college student with anti-Semitic views opened fire on the synagogue, killing one and injuring three, during the last day of Passover, a commemoration of freedom and liberation from slavery. The shooting came six months after a gunman opened fire at Pittsburgh’s oldest synagogue, Tree of Life, killing 11 and injuring six people. In March, a shooting at two New Zealand mosques resulted in the deaths of 50 people and a recent bomb blast at a Sri Lanka church on Easter Sunday resulted in the deaths of 253 people. 

These attacks at places of worship have brought about concerns over security, but Rabbi Moshe Gurary from Chabad of Buffalo said there should be a middle ground when it comes to security measures in places of worship. 

“I think places of worship should remain open to everyone, although there should be security measures implemented to ensure the safety of attendees,” Gurary said.

The Chabad House will be holding a special Shabbat event this weekend to show “solidarity” and that “the forces of darkness will not break them.” 

Gurary said the current rise of anti-Semitism is taking a “painful toll” on the Jewish community, but said this can be transformed into progress. 

“Grief and tragedy need to be turned into more positive action,” Gurary said. “Every step back can, and must, be a giant leap forward.”

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 was 48% higher than in 2016, and 99% higher than in 2015, according to the 2018 Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit.

“Anti-Semitism is a big problem right now, just like other hate crimes,” said Rabbi Sara Rich of Hillel. “I think the last day of Passover, and the whole week itself, allows us to think about freedom, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.”

Rich said hearing about this tragedy may make students more concerned for their safety in places of worship. 

 “Normally students wouldn’t think twice about going to a Jewish program or event, but I think some students may be feeling more vulnerable,” Rich said. 

Hillel of Buffalo members decided to reflect on the attack at Chabad of Poway by the “inspiring” words of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein from Poway, who wrote in a message that “light and positivity” are the way to combat hate.

Students from Hillel said they have decided to “focus on the positive” by raising money for Oishei Children’s Hospital this week, including a “Painting for Patients” event on Wednesday night. 

Alexa Zappia, a Springboard Innovation Specialist at Hillel, said tragedies like this make the Jewish community feel even more connected to Judaism. 

She said students came into Hillel on Monday wanting to carry on their lives “with intention.”

“Unfortunately these things happen and we have to remember them, but we can’t let them hold us back from carrying on our daily lives,” Zappia said. “Instead of observing something that just happened, we’re passing on a kind act this week.” 

Justin Weiss, a member of Hillel, said he wasn’t surprised when he heard about the shooting. But moving past this tragedy, Weiss said, means recognizing these hate crimes are going to persist.

“Just being able to move past the idea that there are people who want to harm others because of what they believe in and their religion or because of the way they dress, it’s really sad,” Weiss said.

Sarah Farnett, assistant at the Catholic Newman Center, said it’s important for religious communities to come together during times of tragedy.

“These acts of terror come from places of hatred and try to divide us,” Farnett said. “We should be doing the exact opposite and come together.”

Farnett said it can be “frightening” being in a public congregation. She said in her time working in the Newman Center, police presence has been at large, and she’s never felt unsafe.

“I think these people want us to be [afraid],” Farnett said. “I think that’s their goal, and we don’t want to give in to that negative, catastrophic thinking.” 

On April 10, after the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand, the country passed a reform bill to improve gun laws.

“There will always be vulnerability to any religious group when they are practicing in private or in public,” George Kfouri, President of Organization for Arab Students, said. “As a country we need to fight this.”

Kfouri said with the amount of attacks in the U.S. over the past several years, they have become “normalized” in society. 

“Everyone forgets about the victims and focuses on the attacker,” Kfouri said. “There should always be vigils for anyone who lost their life in an attack like this.”

Rich said the attacks are a shared concern between religious groups and should bring together students of all religious backgrounds on campus.

“It shouldn’t be something that any one group is dealing with alone, these are all related issues,” Rich said. “It’s not just attacks on Jews that bother us, but an attack on any religious group. If you attack one of us, it’s all of us.”

Correction: Alexa Zappia is a core member of Hillel and not a volunteer, which a previous version of the article stated. 

Brittany Gorny is the asst. News editor and can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @BrittanyUBSpec.