I’m having a hard time finding the words. I didn’t know what to expect from a community in the aftermath of a mass shooting. What do you say? Would there be anger, fear, or resentment? I expected tears and hugs, and I saw a lot of that, but I was simply blown away by one big thing: love. Everywhere you looked, there was love. Black, white, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, all Americans, all Pittsburghers, all came together with love in their hearts and souls. We must never take that for granted.
Of late it seems we have taken each other for granted. There has been so much anger and vitriol in our public discourse and on Saturday morning, on the Jewish Holy Day Shabbat, that anger boiled over in the form of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in our nation’s history. For a short terrible time, a house of love and worship was transformed into a house of horrors. And as shocking as it is, we shouldn’t be surprised, we know anti-Semitism is on the rise. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue.”
When I first heard news of the shooting, I was instantly brought back to a story my grandfather told me of how he fled Poland to escape the pogroms. How America was a beacon of hope that promised him the freedom to worship without fear. Which is why I immediately called Rabbi Schneier and asked if he would join me and Governor Pataki and lead a mission to Pittsburgh representing the Appeal of Conscience. And while I didn’t know what to expect, I will be forever thankful that we went, because what I saw in Pittsburgh, while heartbreaking, was also inspiring and reaffirming.
We met with the Pittsburgh Chief of Police Scott Schubert. The chief is built like a steel beam, with a quiet determination and a deep molten passion for his city. Four of his brave officers were wounded risking their lives, engaging the shooter. Chief Schubert trained his men right, they rushed into the synagogue instead of standing down. I salute these heroes for standing up, where other officers have stood down.
We met Pittsburgh police officer Daniel Meade who was one of the first responders on the scene. He and his partner immediately charged into the synagogue and engaged the shooter, providing some worshippers precious time to escape. Visiting officer Meade in the hospital, recovering from his wound, he told us that all he wanted was to get back on the street and protect Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood he loves.
Later, we were bedside with Andrea Wedner, who was shot with her mother Rose Mallinger praying beside her. As she told her story, we stood transfixed. We cried together, as Andrea described how for a split second, she saw the shooter out of the corner of her eye and attempted to move in front of her mother.
But it was too late. Andrea was shot twice and her mother Rose, 97, full of life, was gone in the blink of an eye. Unreal, unbelievable, and incomprehensible!
That evening, we joined the community for a moving and amazing interfaith memorial service. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall was packed to the rafters, with thousands jammed inside while another thousand stood outside in the cold rain. This was a life changing experience, Pittsburgh is a big city with the heart of a small town. Speakers, of all different faiths sounded a common refrain of love and light. The people of Pittsburgh have the grace to know what so many politicians fail to grasp, now is not the time for pointing fingers, it’s a time for holding hands. As one speaker lectured the politicians, it’s not a time to be politically correct, do something, it’s time to do something, which brought a long, standing, thundering ovation that shook the hall — yes do the something!
We will never know whether our toxic political climate played a role in unleashing the hate that took eleven lives too soon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand better. Chief Schubert deserves better, Officer Meade deserves better, Andrea Wedner deserves better, Rose Mallinger deserves better, as do the other 10 good souls that were ripped from this life too soon at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
We will not let the hatred of anti-Semitism take root in America. Together we will raise our voices, the voices of love, drowning out the anger and silencing the hate. And we must commit, as Lincoln did, that as we honor the dead “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Earle Mack served as U.S. ambassador to Finland from 2004 to 2005. He was named chairman emeritus of the New York State Council of the Arts after serving as its chairman and chief executive officer from 1996 to 1999.
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