The participation of the Dor Hadash congregation in a national celebration to welcome refugees may have drawn hateful attention from the gunman who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday.
Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that shares the synagogue, was among 300 congregations in the United States and Canada to participate on Oct. 19 and 20 in the National Refugee Shabbat sponsored by HIAS, a national Jewish resettlement agency.
In anti-Semitic, anti-refugee writings on a social media platform favored by extremists, gunman Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, singled out HIAS and posted a link to its website with information on participants in the Shabbat.
“To think that that attack happened because of that, because they were welcoming refugees...” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, said at a Tuesday morning press conference at Jewish Family and Community Services [JFCS] in Squirrel Hill.
HIAS counts JFCS as one of 17 partners nationwide, and JFCS said its refugee resettlement work will not stop. PublicSource featured HIAS in a story Monday and JFCS in a story last week, as it will now be one of only two Pittsburgh-area groups focused on refugee resettlement.
“We are even more committed to saving the lives of people who have no home and we will continue this work,” said Leslie Aizenman, JFCS director of refugee and immigrant services.
“The majority of people are very much in support of what we do, if they understand what we do.”
Jordan Golin, JFCS president and CEO, said his organization had not received any specific threats about its refugee services or its connection to HIAS. But in recent years, he said the organization has increased building security and knows its work could draw threats.
Since the shooting, he said, Pittsburgh police and the FBI have been monitoring social media for threats.
Hetfield said HIAS was aware of “hate posts” on social media about the organization and its efforts. But they were not aware of the Gab.com social media platform or Bowers’ posts there.
“We see things every day, and we just kept doing our work. But that will change now,” Hetfield said. “It’s just been words so far. Until this. No one was prepared for this.”
Although HIAS works with the U.S. State Department, Hetfield said his organization has not heard from the White House or the State Department following Saturday’s shooting.
“It’s sad and disappointing, but it is so overtaken by the support we’ve gotten from other Americans and organizations from all over the country,” he said.
The tragedy has brought an overwhelming number of financial donations to HIAS, Hetfield said, though he did not know the total.
Locally, Aizenman said JFCS has resettled more than 800 refugees in the last five years. They’ve been Nepali, Burmese, Congolese, Syrian, Iraqi and Somali, she said.
“We take whoever the U.S. government selects,” she said.
JFCS helps refugee families find housing and jobs, enroll their children in school and learn English.
Now the refugee community is coming to the support of the Jewish community, Golin said.
“Our refugee community is devastated by the shooting and has offered donations, support and comfort in this time of tremendous tragedy,” Golin said. “They are so grateful to the Jewish community for our support and are devastated by the thought that their arrival may have contributed to our suffering.”
The local Bhutanese community has been especially supportive, he said.
Khara Timsina, executive director of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, said his organization is trying to organize a Friday night candlelight vigil in the Baldwin-Whitehall area, where many in the community live.
“Our whole community stands in support of the Jewish community,” Timsina said.
Members of the Bhutanese business community have made monetary donations and others are attending funerals of the victims, he said.
“We feel this is a blow. The anger, hatred on not just the Jewish community, but all communities that look different,” Timsina said.
The refugees community’s belief that they are safe in the Pittsburgh area is also shaken.
”My personal view of Pittsburgh being safe is in doubt now if someone could attack a group because they are supporting refugees, and I am one of those refugees who have found a new home here with big hopes,” he said. “Everything is in doubt now.”
Refugees are also shaken by the fact that the gunman lived in Baldwin, where many of their families live.
“That one of our community members would be spending so much time and energy for ending life,” he said. “I do not understand.”
JFCS has organized counseling services for individuals traumatized by Saturday’s shootings.
Drop-in hours for adults at the Jewish Community Center [JCC] in Squirrel Hill run from 9 a.m to 9 p.m., and counselors have been placed in each of the Jewish day schools and JCC’s preschool.
Pittsburgh Action Against Rape has set up a 24-hour “warm line” for callers who want to discuss trauma after the shooting. The number is 1-866-363-7273, ext. 2.
In addition, JFCS has a form on its website where individuals can write a letter of support to survivors or family members of the victims.
Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.