South African emigres deeply shaken by Pittsburgh shooting

  • Pitts4 USE
The Tree of Life Congregation community of Pittsburgh was participating in the worldwide Shabbos Project last Saturday when a gunman opened fire and killed 11 congregants in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. This was confirmed by a number of ex-South African Jews in Pittsburgh, including Dr Marlene Behrmann Cohen, who lives in Squirrel Hill – ‘ground zero’ of the attack.
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 01, 2018

She said, however, that the number of people at shul was probably no more than normal, as this is a very active community with many shul-goers.

“My deep sense of security has been shaken. I feel sad and angry, but also diminished somehow. It feels personal,” Behrmann Cohen told the SA Jewish Report this week.

Behrmann Cohen, who grew up in Johannesburg, knew victim Joyce Fienberg, and saw her at a lecture the day before the shooting. “On Saturday, we were asking people if anyone had heard from Joyce, and no one had. A few more hours passed, and there was still no word, and so this dread was growing over the afternoon. We heard the news at night, but we all knew deep down, I think. I am stunned, sort of immobilised really,” she says.

The shul complex where the gunman took 11 lives is around the corner from where Behrmann Cohen lives, and she was attending a nearby shul at the time of the attack. “If the gunman had taken a different turn, it may very well have been my shul that was attacked,” she says. While the horror unfolded, her shul was placed on lockdown, and its congregants prayed amidst the chaos and uncertainty.

Behrmann Cohen attended King David Linksfield from Grade 1 to Grade 12, and left South Africa in 1986. Her parents always said that the warm, close-knit community where she settled in Pittsburgh reminded them of Johannesburg. Like most other Jews in America, she has always been proudly and openly Jewish, but now wonders if Jews may need to be less visible.

She says the Tree of Life Congregation is in the centre of town, and she passes it every day. Though she cannot imagine going back there, she knows the community will move forward. “We will go to the funerals [which started on Tuesday], and we will re-commit to an ethical and moral life.”

Dr Farrel Buchinsky grew up in Cape Town, left South Africa in 1991, emigrated to the United States in 1992, and moved to Pittsburgh in 2001. A paediatric ear, nose and throat specialist, he was just leaving his workplace at Allegheny General Hospital on Saturday, when he saw an ambulance arrive, followed by a police escort. It turned out that this was the ambulance transporting the injured shooter, who was treated by a Jewish nurse and doctor on arrival. “In fact, even the president of the hospital is Jewish,” Buchinsky says.

Buchinsky’s friend’s uncle was victim Melvin Wax, “but I did not know him first hand. I recognised him as one of the faces I saw around Squirrel Hill frequently. There are many one degree and two degrees of separation to some of those murdered.”

Says Buchinsky, “I still feel safe as a Jew in America, but clearly a little less so than before. Anti-Semitism is dangerous everywhere. It’s particularly dangerous when there is a general sense of hysterical fear and hate. When one couples that with a gun culture – almost a fetish – which is strong here in the US, it is particularly dangerous.”

What has surprised him, as an immigrant in America, is that a place he always saw as “‘having it together” could be so gridlocked by partisanship, irrationality, and divisiveness. “I could not have predicted that,” he says. “Indirectly, that is what makes things like this possible.”

Tamara Dubowitz left South Africa in 1977 when she was just a toddler, but her South African past remains a guiding force in her life: “I feel safe as a Jew in America. And I feel safe as a Jew in Pittsburgh. However, because of my South African background, I feel especially sensitive to language, rhetoric, and acts of discrimination – whether they be anti-Semitic or anti any other group.

“This is a difficult time for me to feel safe as an American, because our leadership uses language that promotes bigotry, which in my opinion, is the most pressing issue that the US is facing today.”

She describes the Pittsburgh Jewish community as tight knit. “Everyone knows everyone. It’s a true community in so many ways. Everyone knew the victims [of the shooting] through one degree of separation. I knew almost all of them through others.

Dubowitz believes that President Donald Trump’s initial response to the shooting that there should have been an armed guard, was wrong and offensive. “How about: why was there someone who was walking around with an automatic rifle? Why do we need assault rifles? The community is heartbroken, sad, and angry, but at the same time, we will not allow this monster to break us.”

Tali Benjamin Idell left Cape Town with her family when she was nine years old. Now a wife and mother of four children, she previously lived in Parkland, Florida, and knew of some of the victims in that shooting.

So, when the Tree of Life attack occurred, it was surreal. “We heard the news only after Shabbos. We were shocked because none of the many shuls in the city had ever been vandalised by anti-Semitic graffiti, or any similar incidents. It was something we never would have guessed.”

As a religious Jew, she feels that one has to have faith, and that education about diversity is really going to make the difference going forward. “What South African Jews can do to help is to bring light into this world by doing mitzvahs in honour of the 11 souls that perished,” she says.

Rabbi Avi Shlomo, who lives in Cape Town, wrote on Sunday, “The Tree of Life Congregation, where my cousins had their Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah celebrations, is literally two minutes from my childhood home, on streets where as I child I never experienced any hate, fear, or danger.

“I walked innumerable times down Murray Avenue on Shabbos, dressed visibly Jewish, and never received a negative comment. The community I grew up in was a safe and supportive environment for everyone who lived there.”

Behrmann Cohen remains hopeful after seeing the response from numerous non-Jewish friends and colleagues who have taken the time to commiserate and identify with the Jewish community as a fellow minority.

She is a university professor, and was deeply touched when one of her African American students wrote to her offering his condolences, saying, “As an African American, I tend to lose sight of the hate that so many other minorities face in this country, so if it offers any kind of emotional support, I want you and your family to know that I will do my part, no matter how small, to contribute to the well-being of all citizens, not just those who look like me.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Charles Berelowitz 03 Nov
    This is a very sad day in Jewish life


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