By Elizabeth Perry
In the wake of the Tree of Life shooting and an increase in antisemitic attacks across the country, local Jewish congregations are seeking increased security.
Carnegie synagogue Ahavath Achim Congregation sought and was awarded a $20,000 state grant to further improve safety measures.
“We’ve been in Carnegie 120 years. We never locked the doors. We lock them now,” Ahavath Achim Vice President Rick D’Loss said.
On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire on worshipers of the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, a shooter killed 11 people who were attending the Saturday morning service. The youngest was aged 54 and the eldest 97.
“We were in the middle of service, of course, because it happened on a Saturday morning. People’s cell phones started going off,” D’Loss said.
Fear set in while congregants waited to see what to do next.
“We kind of were deer in the headlights for a little bit,” D’Loss said.
D’Loss said they finally decided to evacuate because of a worry the violence might spread. After that day, some congregants never returned to their worship community.
“I have members who have not come back to shul and they will not. They’re afraid,” D’Loss said. Shul is the Yiddish word for school and D’Loss like most American Jews used it interchangeably with the word synagogue. Ahavath Achim means “brotherly love” in Hebrew.
Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, said the Mt. Lebanon shul will receive a $42,481 grant to improve existing safety measures.
Carnegie’s congregation has about 40 members. In contrast, Temple Emanuel serves 450 families, with a mix of young families up to people in their 90s.
“We serve multiple populations. We’re continuously re-evaluating our security protocols and strategies so that we can safely meet the needs of our community,” Hoffman said.
Members of the congregation lost relatives during the Tree of Life attack. Hoffman, herself, used to work for Dor Hadash, prior to taking a position with Temple Emanuel. Dor Hadash was one of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life Synagogue. She had been hired for the position by Jerry Rabinowitz, who was one of the 11 victims. Rabinowitz, a doctor, ran into the space where the shooting was taking place in order to try and help the victims.
“We’ll all be shaken by that forever,” Hoffman said.
Ahavath Achim Congregation suffered an antisemitic attack in 2000. Mt. Lebanon resident Richard Baumhamers murdered five people in a racially-motivated spree.
“Amongst his killing of all those people he shot out the windows in the shul, which was horrific in itself,” D’Loss said.
Luckily, their janitor had already left for the day and no one was injured within their tiny community. However, Ahavath Achim Congregation President, Wendy Panizzi worried their position near the parkway makes them an easy target.
“We’ve been concerned for many years, but we didn’t really have the money to do a big security sweep,” Panizzi said.
The funding came through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to administer grants to nonprofit organizations that principally serve individuals, groups or institutions that are usually targeted by people who are bigoted against those groups.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2,717 antisemitic incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism were reported in 2021.
That is the highest number of incidents on record since the organization began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979, “an average of more than seven incidents per day and a 34% increase year over year.”
A report from ADL released on Jan.12 found an increase in antisemitic belief in Americans. They state 85% of those participating in the study believed at least one anti-Jewish trope, as opposed to 61% found in 2019. Those who believed six or more stereotypes were 20% of the total study, nearly double the 11% found in 2019. This is “the highest level measured in decades.”
“Wherever you are, antisemitism is surely growing in our cities,” Panizzi said.
Panizzi said at this point, she and the other leaders at Ahavath Achim are researching the best way to use the grant money and implement further security measures. There is a plan in place at the synagogue in case a shooter invades their space.
One of the strengths of Carnegie, its ethnic diversity, is something that has increased fear of being targeted, Panizzi said. There is a mosque down the street from the synagogue, an Indian community center and Ukrainian churches.
“We do have a lot of support in the congregation, but you have to stop and think any time
It could probably happen just as easily at the mosque as it could here,” Panizzi said. “You just can’t be too diligent.”