Petaluma Jewish community reacts to Pittsburgh shooting

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The Petaluma Jewish community is grieving this week following a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday morning that left 11 congregants dead and six others injured, including four police officers.

Rabbi Dovid Bush, who leads Petaluma’s Chabad Jewish Center congregation, said support from residents outside the faith has been pouring in since the news of the deadly hate crime first broke. One woman who he had never met before even brought lavender plants to the temple, he said.

On Tuesday night, about 30 residents gathered in downtown for a candlelight vigil to mourn as a community and bring members of other minority groups together in the wake of what’s been described as the deadliest attack against the Jewish community on U.S. soil.

Robert Bowers, the lone gunman, entered the Tree of Life congregation Saturday armed with an assault rifle and at least three handguns, according to reports. He fired for several minutes, shouting anti-Semitic slurs before exchanging gunfire with police. After suffering multiple gunshot wounds, he eventually surrendered.

“(Bowers) said, ‘All Jews must die.’ It was just a hate that was so absolute in its nature,” said Bush, an East Coast native. “It definitely struck to the core. You can’t really make sense out of such an action because it’s senseless hatred. That’s why our response needs to be the exact opposite. It needs to be senseless kindness.”

Some of that kindness seems to be showing. Rabbi Ted Feldman, who was born in Pittsburgh, found 11 hearts posted into the ground outside Petaluma’s B’nai Israel Jewish Center when he returned to the synagogue Saturday night.

At Saturday morning’s Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, Feldman said they had a moment of silence to honor the victims.

“It was pretty frightening,” he said. “I have to say I’m not surprised given the climate we live in. While I do acknowledge there were these kinds of things happening before the current administration, there’s been a precipitous rise in all the antis in this country since the election. It was pretty painful.”

President Donald Trump visited Pittsburgh on Tuesday, facing multiple protests as well as mixed emotions from local residents, according to several news reports. With the first funerals occurring and the community still mourning, many felt it was too soon for a visit, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Others believed Trump’s divisive rhetoric and fearmongering tactics from the bully pulpit played a role in Saturday’s deadly attack. Earlier in the week, the country was coming to terms with an act of domestic terrorism when a Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and notable supporters like George Soros.

The White House has shirked off criticism that the president’s tactics have fueled the uptick in hate crimes since his election in November 2016. FBI crime data and numerous studies following trends after the election say otherwise.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino found hate crimes reported to police in America’s 10 largest cities rose 12.5 percent in 2017, representing the fourth annual increase and the highest total in over a decade. Calls for gun control have also followed.

Feldman said Trump was “absolutely” responsible for the emboldened actions by Neo-Nazis and white nationalists that have championed his presidency.

“It’s certainly increased,” he said. “And the nation has been given permission for this (kind of behavior).”

Petaluma residents outside the faith are invited to Saturday’s Sabbath at B’nai Israel to “show solidarity,” Feldman said.

The Chabad congregation started an initiative called “11 Scrolls for 11 Souls,” which aims to promote Jewish support within Petaluma. The tradition of hanging a scroll, or mezuzah in Hebrew, on the right doorpost of a home provides spiritual protection for its inhabitants.

In moments like this, it can also be a symbol of Jewish pride, Bush said.

“We can’t quite fix the world,” he said. “We don’t have that much influence … but on a personal, local level, we can illuminate our community. We can make our community a more loving place.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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