St. Louis Jewish community joins lawmakers, other faith groups for Tree of Life vigil

Gerald Axelbaum, a retired teacher and member of Congregation B’nai Amoona, talks with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., after a vigil Oct. 28 at the Jewish Community Center for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The first standing ovation during a St. Louis vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue occurred after State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, spoke of the need to repair the world.

“The word repair is not passive,” said Schupp, who is Jewish. “Thoughts and prayers are critical, but they are not enough.”

And with that, some 1,500 attendees from across the spectrum of Judaism and various local faith communities stood and erupted into applause. It was one of several moving movements during the gathering Sunday afternoon in the gymnasium at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur.

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Most of the elected officials and clergy delivered a similar message of the need to unify against anti-Semitism and hate. Some also offered more specifics about condemning rhetoric that targets other groups, such as immigrants, Muslims or LGBT people.

Before allegedly killing 11 people and injuring six others Saturday morning at the Conservative congregation in a Pittsburgh neighborhood during a bris circumcision ceremony, Robert Bowers posted on social media that HIAS, a Jewish organization that aids refugees, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He has been arrested and charged with 29 criminal counts.

After mass shootings, which have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years in the United States, Democratic lawmakers and others often discuss the need to enact stricter gun laws. But at the vigil, speakers stayed away from talking about guns and instead focused on anti-Semitism and hate speech. (Schupp has, for example, advocated for legislation that would require background checks for gun purchases but did not raise the issue at the event.)

Interestingly, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who spoke before Schupp, did not use the word “hate” or “anti-Semitism” or specify what exactly he was condemning.

“This is clearly a poison that cannot be allowed to spread or cannot be tolerated,” said Blunt, who is married to a Jewish woman. “It is not new but any evidence of it in our society is unacceptable.”

A spokesperson for Blunt stated in an email to the Jewish Light said that he was referring to anti-Semitism.

Blunt then spoke about threats he had received from the person (Frazier Glenn Miller Jr.) who later killed three people in a 2014 shooting outside the JCC in Overland Park, Kan.

“This is a moment we should all take as seriously as we possibly can. These ideas are spreading again in other places in the world. We cannot find that acceptable and we cannot find it acceptable in our country,” said Blunt. He was joined on stage by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-St. Louis County. (Her opponent in the upcoming election, the Democrat Cort VanOstran, was in the audience.) A number of national Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, linked the attack to a larger increase in anti-Semitism.

“Unfortunately, this violent attack – the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the United States – occurs at a time when ADL has reported a historic increase in both anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Semitic online harassment,” ADL National Director Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.

At the vigil, speakers thanked local Muslims and other religious communities for their support of the Jewish community after this and other recent tragedies. Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth shared a story about a Christian reverend who “left an important conference of her faith to share just a few moments here.”

She did so, Goldstein said, because members of the Jewish community had shown up and supported mourners after the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The Reform rabbi also said that the first calls of concern she received after the synagogue shooting came from “our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

“When we think about facing everything and rising, the only way we rise, is to rise together,” said Goldstein, who encouraged attendees to respond to the atrocity by becoming involved with local charitable organizations and voting. “It is not on the Muslim community to stand for themselves and by themselves. It is not on our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community to stand on their own or by themselves. It is not our brothers and sisters of color to stand by themselves and for themselves, and it is not on us as a Jewish community to stand by ourselves, and all of you have shown that is a truth that we know in St. Louis today.”

Mufti Asif Umar, the imam of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, referred to one of Bowers’ posts — “filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” — and said that “As you can see we are in the battle together to fight hatred and to fight bigotry.”

In another touching moment, Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel of St. Louis asked all the children in the audience to stand.

“I want you children to look around and know that gathered here is a subset, a representation of the entire community of St. Louis — Jew, Christian, Muslim, people of all faiths and political views, and they have come together to pledge one thing: They will do everything in their power to keep you safe,” said Shulman, who leads the Modern Orthodox congregation.

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, called on attendees to own “our own role” in the toxic state of discourse about hot- button issues.

“Monitor your social media. Delete posts that attack people, instead of disagreeing about ideas,” he said.

He also urged people to support political leaders who “refuse to personalize our political disagreements, who refuse to target minorities and refuse to create a fear of immigrants in our society.”

President Donald Trump has been criticized — particularly in the wake of the recent spate of pipe bombs sent to Democrats, among others — for using combative language against his opponents that, critics say, contributes to such violence, and for his remarks about immigrants.

Rehfeld told the Jewish Light after the vigil that he called on people to hold accountable elected officials because “there is a lot of really vile rhetoric that is personalizing disagreement throughout political leadership in America today. I think it’s destructive to our society, and it leads to this kind of hate-filled violence, and it allows anti-Semitism to express itself.”

After the event, a number of people approached Blunt and asked him to publicly condemn Trump’s rhetoric.

One woman told Blunt that Trump’s “words lead to action. They lead to racist, hateful action.”

When asked about attendees’ concerns about Trump’s rhetoric, Blunt told the Light that “he is concerned about rhetoric generally. I think the president is often reflective of the broader lack of concerns about rhetoric. He’s trying to make a point in a world where lots of people say things that shouldn’t be said.”

Paul Wagman, a public relations consultant, said he appreciated the ecumenical nature of the vigil and was also glad to see both Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the event. 

Even though the majority of the American Jewish community, according to polls, votes Democrat and does not have a favorable view of the president, Wagman said, “I think it’s important that the Jewish community has bridges to the Republican Party, especially in the environment that we are in.” 

That said, Wagman, a member of Central Reform Congregation, thinks “there are some obvious contradictions” from Republican leaders such as Blunt “in offering sympathy and at the same time not offering anything but thoughts and prayers.”

He pointed to the senator’s opposition to “sensible gun restrictions” and to his lack of effort to “reign in Trump in his attacks on minorities, let alone other issues. I’m talking about hate mongering, and I’m talking about sensible gun laws.”

(In 2016, the Washington Post reported that Blunt had received more campaign donations from the National Rifle Association, a lobbying group that leads opposition to new gun control measures, than any other member of Congress.)

Sheri Sherman, a community volunteer and member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, said she was moved by the call for people to respond to the shooting by voting. But she also said she was glad that the vigil “was not political. I was thankful for that.”

Rabbi Josh Bregman, vice president of development at the Missouri Torah Institute, an Orthodox boys high school in Chesterfield, said that he thought the vigil “was an incredible show of solidarity across political lines. There were people from different parties involved, different religions, different sects of the Jewish religion, and I think the solid message was to provide comfort for each other and the resource of a community.”

As to what he would like to see happen now, Rabbi Mendy Rosner, a teacher at the Torah Institute, said: “security,” and added, “Making sure that proper security is in place so that somebody who has this terrible agenda is not able to stroll right in and murder people. A fence or something that will prevent a person from getting that kind of access.”

On security at synagogues in St. Louis, Rehfeld said, “there is a lot of talk about moving to a European model. When you go to Europe, they have this almost military encampment in front of synagogues. I don’t think we’re there at this point. I think it’s important to treat this seriously but at the same time not overreact.”