Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

At Jewish day school, we were taught the history of the Jewish people. A history that is fraught with conflict and stories of anti-Semitism stretching back through the ages.

I was blessed to grow up in a time that was relatively safe in the world for Jews. I feel incredibly grateful to my parents, grandparents and ancestors for all of the work that they had to do to create that safe world for my siblings and me.

Today, that world is no longer safe. I’m still walking in a fog trying to go about my daily routine, but wracked with grief and sorrow at the tragedy that occurred in Pittsburgh this past weekend, when a man armed with a semiautomatic assault-style rifle stormed the Tree of Life synagogue and shot worshipers during Shabbat services, killing 11 and wounding six in the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.

It breaks my heart to think what the world is like now for my children growing up as Jews in America.

Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Tree of Life is located, is a place where it would not be unusual to see Hasidic Jews, Reform Jews, Irish Catholics, African Americans, immigrants from Haiti, Russia and China, and everyone in between, all going about their daily lives in harmony.

A place where I was taught the Jewish values for tzedekah (charity), tzedek (social justice), and tikum olam (heal the world).

I am grateful to my parents for moving our family to Squirrel Hill in 1988. I cannot imagine growing up anywhere else. To have this special neighborhood — my neighborhood — thrust into the national spotlight in such a horrific way is like a cruel nightmare.

This summer, I took over as volunteer leader of the Washington, D.C., chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. As a part of the gun safety community, I’ve sadly come to realize that gun violence is a public health crisis. Gun violence encompasses more than mass shootings, it is also domestic violence, unintentional shootings by children, firearm suicide and police shootings.

Rachel M. Usdan. (Courtesy of Rachel M. Usdan)
Rachel M. Usdan. (Courtesy of Rachel M. Usdan)

So, unfortunately, I’m familiar with this type of grief. But this year in particular has been challenging as gun violence hit close to home. For my family, it started with the killing of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. My husband attended Stoneman Douglas and his family still lives in the area. At the time, our grief over this shooting felt unbearable.

Then this past weekend happened.

My first thought was, “Not the Jewish people, my people, again.

The murderer was radicalized online and fed off the growing tolerance of hate speech in this country. He’s part of a growing group of domestic terrorists moved to take violent action against their perceived enemies. Part of the 20 percent of hate crimes motivated by bias against a religion.

What reportedly sent the Pittsburgh murderer over the top was a Jewish movement to support refugees coming into this country. Just before authorities say Robert Bowers shot and killed worshipers, he allegedly posted on social media that a refu­gee resettlement group, HIAS, “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.”

Supporting refugees is important to Jews because we have often been refugees across our 4,000-year history, fleeing persecution. I, too, was part of the movement of Jews supporting refugees, by joining D.C.'s Capitol Hill Good Neighbors Refugee Resettlement group. We have helped resettle several Muslim families from Afghanistan who helped support America’s military effort in Afghanistan and now fear persecution from the Taliban in their home country.

This is the kind of tzedakah, tzedek and tikum olam that I was taught growing up in Squirrel Hill.

So I stand strong today and say that I will never give up. I won’t give up supporting common sense gun reform, I won’t give up supporting gun violence victims and their families, I won’t give up supporting refugees in need of assistance. And I will not give up supporting gun safety laws.

No community should live in fear of gun violence in their houses of worship. And yet, once again we have been reminded that hate armed with a gun is deadly.

No action to save lives will ever come too soon.

Now more than ever we need people to vote and stay engaged. We need to elect local, state and federal lawmakers who make sensible gun laws a priority. And we need to address the underlying causes of this disease in our country — the anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and intolerance of all kinds infecting the nation.

Democracy is no longer a spectator sport. We need you.

Rachel M. Usdan was born and raised in Squirrel Hill and is the current volunteer leader for the Washington, D.C., chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America

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