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Very Painful Scene, Says Rabbi Who Visited Pa. Synagogue

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I was watching the Pittsburgh Steelers game yesterday. It's how I spend just about every single Sunday this time of year. Of course, this was not any Sunday. This was a day when a city known for its resilience was confronting a tragedy. Eleven people were killed by a mass shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I'm not sure anything captured the spirit of that city better than a sign a Steelers fan held up at Heinz Field during that game, hatred can't weaken a city of steel.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner was in Pittsburgh yesterday. He is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and he's now back in Washington, D.C., and in our studios.

Rabbi, thank you. I know you've been doing a lot this weekend. It hasn't been easy. You've been traveling. We appreciate you coming in in the morning.

JONAH PESNER: It's an honor to be with you David. And I'm sorry. I know you grew up nearby, and I'm sorry for your loss.

GREENE: Well, I appreciate that. And my focus is really on that city right now. Tell me about your day yesterday. Who were you talking to? And what were your impressions of the city right now?

PESNER: Well, I just came back early this morning. It was a very, very painful environment, as you can imagine. I just want to start by acknowledging the 11 wonderful souls - these were Shabbat morning regulars. They were the people that make a congregation thrive. Every Shabbat morning, they would come together and study in Tree of Life, so ironically named. And of course, there are still a few people who were critically injured, and then there are members of law enforcement.

So first and foremost, there are the families who are grieving and the rabbis locally who are pastoring and taking care of their folks. And then there is a city which is confronting what is not only the most violent act of terror against the Jewish community in American history - certainly in a synagogue - but is also what the mayor of Pittsburgh, yesterday, called the worst disaster ever to confront his city. So you have faith leaders across the spectrum who are coming together to ask - how could such a thing happen, and what can this city do to rise up from the ashes of this and redeem itself?

GREENE: Well - I mean, speaking of trying to rise up from the ashes here, as you listen to people in this religious community, in the city as a whole, what sticks out to you in terms of what you were hearing?

PESNER: Well, the commitment to be with one another - you know, it was poignant, David, that the Shabbat morning scripture that was read in synagogues was the story of Abraham and Sarah, who kept their tent open on all four sides so that strangers would be welcomed into their midst. How ironic that Tree of Life, which was open and accessible became the place of a carnage.

But we won't let synagogues become bunkers. We know that the prophet teaches that a congregation is to be a house of prayer for all people. And I think the city of Pittsburgh is really leaning into that image of being open and welcoming of stranger and of other. The vigil last night was spectacular. It was standing room only and people flowing out into the streets outside of the gathering. And you had Christian leaders, Muslim leaders, Jewish leaders from across the spectrum...

GREENE: Wow.

PESNER: ...Leaders from Israel who had flown in - all coming together to say Pittsburgh strong, we are one human family.

GREENE: You spoke at the vigil, right? What was your message? What did you tell people?

PESNER: I didn't speak at the actual vigil itself but throughout the day as I was meeting with leadership and speaking to groups. I think the most powerful conversation I had was with the students at University of Pittsburgh, who are really struggling with how to make sense of what had happened. And I think the message to them was to double down on our commitment to love and to, as Dr. King said, not try and drive out hate with hate. Only love can do that.

And you know, David, one should remember that this massacre was perpetrated by a person who was not only anti-Semitic and hated Jews, but he targeted this synagogue because they had had refugee Shabbat. They were working with HIAS, which is a historic Jewish Agency that resettles refugees from all over the world, not just Jewish refugees - Muslim refugees, Christian refugees. And it was a commitment that this synagogue had made to welcome asylum-seekers and migrants. And so I think the message is we, as Jews, look outward and welcome all people with love and open arms. And we're going to continue to fight for the widow and the stranger and the orphan and all those who are suffering in our midst.

GREENE: I just think about this. I mean, it's been more than a year now since Charlottesville and the "Unite the Right" rally. And there were people infamously chanting, Jews will not replace us. Now we have this. What are you learning in these moments about anti-Semitism in the United States of America?

PESNER: And let's not forget, David, that in Charlottesville, many people don't remember that that same morning, three of those white nationalist neo-Nazi thugs stood outside the synagogue in Charlottesville with assault rifles, threatening. So what we saw as threatening of gun violence a year ago has now become a massacre with gun violence. So the two conclusions I draw are that words matter and kind of this climate of bigoted rhetoric matters. And when the right and the kind of - I shouldn't say the right - when extremists on all sides get emboldened, when white supremacists get emboldened, then they turn to action.

And the plague of gun violence in our country - this is what the students were outraged about. These are the same students who, after the Parkland shooting, mobilized on the "March for Our Lives" and have been working on this upcoming election. And they, in tears, said to me, Rabbi, has nothing changed since Parkland? And I had to reassure them that the arc of history is long, as Dr. King taught, but bends towards justice.

GREENE: Are you optimistic that we can grow from this?

PESNER: I believe deeply in the power of this country to overcome all of the evil forces that would bring us down. My grandma Fanny came here when she was 16 years old from Russia as a 16-year-old migrant, a refugee, with nothing. And she came here because she knew that America would be the land of opportunity for all people, and I do believe that that Statue of Liberty meant something to her and is inspirational to us today.

GREENE: Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Thank you so much.

PESNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.