Answer to anti-Semitism, UI panel says: 'We are not going to shut ourselves down'

University of Iowa community gathers in wake of Pittsburgh tragedy at synagogue

A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday’s shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday’s shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Behind black-framed glasses in a University of Iowa classroom Thursday, Connie Berman shared she has children near the Pittsburgh neighborhood that over the weekend experienced the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, and she pleaded for answers.

“What do we do know?” asked Berman, a UI professor emerita in medieval social, economic, religious and women’s history. “How do we keep them safe?”

A panel of three experts on religion, history and Judaism — who gathered on the UI campus in response to Saturday’s attack on the Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 worshippers dead — gave varying iterations of this response: “We are not going to shut ourselves down.”

“We need to double down on loving kindness,” said Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz of Agudas Achim Synagogue in Iowa City. “We need to double down on our Jewish values.”

She conceded that Jewish communities might need to take logical measures. They might need, for a limited time, to involve law enforcement. But she urged against metal detectors, locked doors and armed guards, like at synagogues across Europe, and she promoted a #ShowUpForShabbat campaign that pushes resilience in the face of violence and threats.

“What has the American Jewish community’s response been in the face of this?” Hugenholtz asked. “We are not going to shut ourselves down.”

In response to several incidents across the country over the weekend, UI Vice President for Student Life and Interim Chief Diversity Officer Melissa Shivers reached out to students this week to share resources and offer support, according to UI spokesperson Hayley Bruce.

UI police officers, she said, are available to help anyone concerned about safety, although the department doesn’t share details about potential security services. Iowa State University police this week reached out to its campus’ faculty and student Jewish groups, according to Michael Newton, assistant vice president and chief of ISU police.

“We let them know we are here to help,” Newton said.

Neither Iowa City nor Cedar Rapids police reported specific threats on Jewish communities, but Cedar Rapids police spokesperson Greg Buelow said his department has been in communication with Temple Judah and has provided increased patrols.

Temple Judah, 3221 Lindsay Lane SE, is inviting the community to Shabbat services at 6:30 p.m. Friday to remember those killed Saturday in Pittsburgh.

Iowa City police are paying extra attention to local Jewish centers, according to Sgt. Derek Frank.

And the dozens who attended Thursday’s UI-based discussion on “understanding anti-Semitism” praised the campus for doing what it’s “supposed to do”— addressing the threat academically by looking historically at attacks on the Jewish people and mulling ideas of how to move forward.

“We know about the Crusades and the Inquisition and the Holocaust,” UI religious studies professor Robert Cargill said, reviewing the history of Jewish persecution, starting back in Biblical times.

But he dived into less-known Jewish-targeted hatred, too.

“There’s Martin Luther, one of the fathers of the reformation, who wrote a document called, ‘On the Jews and their Lies,’” Cargill said. “It’s from the New Testament itself that some Christians get their license to harm Jews.”

For a long time, he said, “This was considered to be the norm.”

“Until places like the United States were established,” he said. “A secular nation, where you had the freedom to worship as you saw fit. This was supposed to be a place where this didn’t happen anymore. And yet, here we are.”

Hugenholtz shared her assessment, “We are a world in a moral crisis.”

Berman and the mother of her son’s wife — who also attended Thursday’s UI discussion — said they experienced that crisis firsthand when their Jewish children called Saturday to report they were safe. They didn’t attend the Tree of Life synagogue. When they moved to the Pittsburgh area, they shopped around for a place to worship and landed somewhere else.

But they are shaken. As are the pair of mothers.

And yet, while Hugenholtz named the problems increasingly evident in this country and across the globe, she also voiced an optimism she hoped would spread.

“What the anti-Semite tries to do is paint a caricature of Judaism that is racialized, that makes a mockery of our complex and nuanced identity. We are not a race. We are a diverse global people that is part of a religious civilization,” she said. “We are a people. We are a tribe. We are a culture. We are a civilization. We are a religion.

“Our difference is a strength. Our message is a strength. Our otherness is a strength. And those are all things to cherish and model.”

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