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Long Island's Jewish leaders: 'An attack against all religions'

People embrace along the street in the Squirrel

People embrace along the street in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire during services at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday. Credit: AP / Keith Srakocic

The mass killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday was an attack on all people of faith that turned a day of peace for Jews into “a Sabbath of tears,” local Jewish leaders said.

Long Island Jewish leaders responded to the deaths of 11 people in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history with shock and grief, offering their condolences to their fellow worshippers and the Pittsburgh community.

FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Bob Jones said the suspect, Robert Bowers, targeted the victims "simply because of their faith." Bowers, who allegedly spewed anti-Semitic slurs and rhetoric on social media, was shot and wounded by police. He was charged with 29 federal counts, including hate crimes and weapons offenses.

“When a tragedy like this happens, it happens against all people," said Mindy Perlmutter, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council — Long Island, in Jericho. "We all have to stand together; an attack against one religion is an attack against all religions.”

Her organization, she said, offers its deepest condolences to the people of Pittsburgh and the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the city’s East End.

President Donald Trump, on Twitter, called for Americans to work together "to extract the poison of Anti-Semitism from our world.” 

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called the violence “senseless” and called for “all Americans to come together to reject violence and hatred in all forms.”

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple of Israel in Lawrence, noted mass shooters also have targeted churches.

“It’s tragic that attacks are being perpetrated against houses of worship, which speak of love between people, a sense of community,” Rosenbaum said. “What happens to one person of faith affects all people of faith everywhere.”

Rosenbaum said that “for Jews around the world, the Sabbath, Shabbat Shalom, is a Sabbath of peace."

"This senseless and heinous act has turned this Sabbath into a Sabbath of tears, but we must wipe away our tears, and do what we can to help the families and communities directly affected through prayer and action to help restore peace to our land,” Rosenbaum said.

Long Island politicians took to Twitter to denounce the attack.

"Today’s tragedy in Pittsburgh gives me the inescapable feeling that we are sliding steadily backwards when it comes to tolerance and violence in our country," State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) wrote. "History isn’t supposed to unfold like this. We are so much better...and we must be."

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) wrote: "The rising tide of anti-Semitism all around the world in recent years must be identified more widely & confronted with total focus & determination. We must respect & protect religious freedom, which is a most important bedrock principle & fundamental right within our great nation."

The shooting suspect allegedly targeted Jews on social media, calling out in particular the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, on the website “Screw your optics, I'm going in," read one recent post.

HIAS had organized a National Refugee Shabbat event dedicated to refugees.

In a statement posted on its website Saturday, HIAS lamented that, “There are no words to express how devastated we are by the events in Pittsburgh this morning. This loss is our loss... As we try to process this horrifying tragedy, we pray that the American Jewish community and the country can find healing.”

HIAS — which the shooter allegedly claimed on social media wanted to "bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us" — was founded in 1881, originally to help Jewish people fleeing pogroms, organized massacres of an ethnic group, typically Jews — in Eastern Europe and Russia. 

With origins in a storefront on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the group initially provided jobs, meals, clothing and transportation for immigrants, and helped the newcomers from a bureau on Ellis Island. Its mission changed with the needs of each era and has broadened beyond just Jews to defend all immigrants' rights.

One of the congregations involved with the HIAS event was Union Temple of Brooklyn, a reform shul in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood, said temple administrator Ross Brady. 

Brady said as part of the shabbat event with HIAS, the congregation said prayers for immigrants. "You put 'Hebrew' and 'Immigrant' together and I guess that's perfect for that mindset — it's the perfect storm for someone to go off," Brady said after a bar mitzvah.

Brady had heard earlier Saturday about the shooting — and found out about the connection to HIAS in the afternoon. The local NYPD precinct and the security company the temple contracts with both reached out about the shooting, he said.

Perlmutter, noting the suspect’s alleged anti-Semitic leanings, said: “When you have somebody who is like this person, so full of hate, this can happen at any time, which is why people always have to be vigilant. It’s very sad that we have to live this way.”

With Laura Blasey, Stefanie Dazio and AP

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