My parents were married there. My grandparents worshiped there. Nearly every day during my teaching sabbatical last year at McGill, I drove by there. And this winter a man carrying a canister of gasoline spray-painted swastikas there and apparently was determined to burn down the building.
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal is an unlikely crime scene, but then again, Tree of Life in Pittsburgh is an unlikely murder scene, and 11 people died there. Neither of these houses of worship is my home synagogue, and yet I have strong ties to both. Congregation Shaar Hashomayim is in essence where my family began. Tree of Life is three blocks from my home.
Nobody died at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim – which cannot be said for Tree of Life – but the wound still stung.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the incident as “despicable,” adding in a Tweet, “I condemn this vile act in the strongest terms possible and stand united with Congregation @ShaarHashomayim, Rabbi @AdamScheier, and Jewish Canadians across the country. We must always denounce antisemitic hate, no matter when or where it arises.”
Others rushed out statements of outrage. “Anti-Semitism can rear its ugly head anywhere and anytime,’’ said Michael Mostyn, who heads B’nai Brith Canada, “and we must always do our part to combat it when it does.” Marc Miller, the Canadian Indigenous Services minister, asked “all Canadians to stand with Shaar Hashomayim and members of the Jewish faith as we condemn this act that has no place in this country.”
Nothing much that happens in Canada causes many ripples across the border, so maybe that is why no one I contacted here in the United States had heard about this incident. Or maybe it is because anti-Semitic acts are so common that there mere spray painting of swastikas is almost incidental. Maybe that, and not the swastikas themselves, is the real tragedy. Maybe that, and not the swastikas themselves, is the real danger.
“From Tree of Life to now, we have gone from horse-and-buggy anti-Semitism to bullet-train anti-Semitism,’’ Bari Weiss, who grew up across the street from my Pittsburgh home, had her Bat Mitzvah at Tree of Life, and is the author of 2019’s “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” told me. “The question is no longer where it is flourishing, but where is it not flourishing. The ideas that made America so exceptional for so many, including for America’s Jews, are under sustained assault. Things that never should have become normal have become normal.”
Indeed, Jews in 2019 suffered more anti-Semitic attacks – 2,100 reported – in the U.S. than in any year in which the Anti-Defamation League has kept count. B’nai Brith Canada reported 2,206 anti-Semitic incidents in that same year, an 8 percent increase, preserving Jews as the most targeted religious minority north of the 49th parallel.
“What we are seeing right now – and this applies to the riot at the Capitol – is that various populations feel beleaguered,” said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor writing a book on religious extremists. “They no longer have a hegemonic hold on society, which is why you have white evangelicals marching in Washington along with white supremacists. This sense of loss triggers these really regrettable incidents of anti-Semitism – and also anti-Black and anti-Democrat sentiments.”
“Donald Trump’s message to make American great again by making America hate again did not stay within our borders,” said Democratic Senator Edward J. Markey, whose wife, Dr. Susan Blumenthal, a former assistant surgeon general, is Jewish. “He gave a permission slip to say and do things we have worked for 50 or 60 years to suppress.”
Markey, 74, whose Malden hometown had three synagogues when he was young, continued: “We can reverse Trump’s housing policies, his education policies, and his environmental policies, but how long will it take to reverse his hatred policy? How long will it take to convince a 12- or 16-year-old boy that what he watched from the president of the United States and the license he gave to anti-Semitism is wrong?”
There is a poignant tie between Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Tree of Life, and I heard about it when I joined a clutch of rabbis for dinner at a kosher restaurant the evening after several of the 2018 funerals in Pittsburgh.
The story began when Rabbi Scheier made plans to fly through Washington’s Dulles Airport from Montreal en route to Pittsburgh for the funerals. The auxiliary engine in the aircraft malfunctioned. A mechanic was 30 minutes away. There was fresh paperwork to complete. The rabbi asked a flight attendant whether he would make his 45-minute connection. “No chance,” she said.
But the first officer overheard this exchange and asked the rabbi where he was going.
“I’m going to Pittsburgh.”
The copilot noticed the rabbi’s kippah.
The delay actually took two hours. Finally, the rabbi was aboard, nervous and disappointed. But the fact that a rabbi was en route to funerals of the victims of the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history had been sent ahead to Dulles. United Airlines authorities moved the incoming gate to the one beside the Pittsburgh flight, which had been held – this is the phrase in the text sent to the passengers – for “unforeseen reasons.”
Unforeseen reasons indeed.
Finally, the plane arrived in Pittsburgh, safe but late. The first officer tipped his cap as the rabbi passed onto the Jetway.
When I heard this story from Rabbi Scheier at that dinner, I asked him to write an account of this episode for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where I was the executive editor.
“As I reflect on this kindness, I understand,” he wrote a few days later. “Everyone is trying to do something, to make a gesture, to contribute in some way to healing the wound from this terrible crime. For some, it’s a financial donation; for others, it’s a solidarity visit; and for this pilot, it was helping a passenger make a connection so that he could honor the victims.”
In that moment, Rabbi Scheier understood both tragedy and compassion. He needed all of the latter as he endured the former at his own synagogue in Montreal. As I reflect on the episodes in my two neighborhoods, I realize that, along with the outrage, we all do.
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.