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Fighting hate: SLO's Jewish community reacts to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting 

While the deadly mass shooting that left 11 dead and seven others injured at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, occurred more than 2,500 miles away, for Lauren Bandari, the tragedy felt much closer to home.

"We are not immune to hate, wherever we live," said Bandari, executive director of the Jewish Community Center Federation of SLO (JCC).

The shooting marked the deadliest attack on American Jews in U.S. history and sent shockwaves of grief, anger, and fear across the country. That includes in SLO, where residents of the Jewish community are grappling with the aftermath of the shooting, looking to heal and calling attention to the rise in the anti-Semitic rhetoric that fueled the shooter.

The shooting occurred as Bandari and others are organizing the ninth annual SLO Jewish Film Festival, which begins in January. The attack in Pittsburgh colored some of the discussion about the event, leaving Bandari and other organizers looking to strike a balance between grief and mourning, and a joyous celebration of inclusivity in film and art.

"The verdict is still a little out in terms of the tone we want to take," she said. "The feelings are still very raw and very real."

Members of Congregation Beth David, a synagogue in Los Osos, looked to show solidary and support for the Tree of Life victims in the wake of the shooting. On Nov. 2, members of the congregation and the SLO community joined other synagogues across the U.S. and held a Shabbat service in memory of the victims.

"We did this to mourn the 11 Jews killed and to affirm that we will not be intimidated nor deterred from exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of worship guaranteed to all Americans under our Constitution," Richard Litvak, interim rabbi for Congregation Beth David, told New Times. "We also gathered, in addition to mourning, to express pride in our heritage and be together and strengthen each other during this terrible time of hate."

The shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, reportedly told law enforcement that he carried out the attack because he believed Jews were "committing genocide" on whites. Bowers also made multiple anti-Semitic comments on the social media website Gab.

But Litvak said the concern goes beyond just Bowers.

"We are all extremely concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in America over the last two years," he said.

According to the most recent data from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the U.S. experienced a 57 percent rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record since 1979. Litvak pointed to recent high-profile incidents as an example of a disturbing increase in openly anti-Semitic rhetoric fueling violence in the country—such as the gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year, where members of the group carried lit torches and chanted, "the Jews will not replace us."

"Our people are concerned that the political atmosphere has given license to white nationalists and legitimacy to their hateful ideology and violent actions," Litvak said.

Increasingly, blame for rising anti-Semitism in the country is being laid at the feet of President Donald Trump. Trump, who stated after the Charlottesville rally that "both sides" were to blame for the violence, has been heavily criticized for failing to strongly repudiate white nationalists.

"While trying to stay out of any partisan politics, I think many Jews are concerned about the president providing legitimacy to white nationalists and countenance to their violent actions," Litvak said.

Barry Price, a member of the progressive Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc's SLO chapter, said the president's rhetoric was fueling hate and prejudice and violence against not only Jews, but Muslims, African-Americans, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups.

"This toxic rhetoric of political violence is being mainstreamed by Trump and his supporters," Price said. "The fear of anyone who is a little bit different is being whipped up by the president and his supporters on a daily basis."

That rhetoric and accompanying violence darkly echo to past persecution of Jews, he said, including the anti-Semitic rhetoric that led to the rise of Nazism in Germany and the systematic murder of 6million Jews during the Holocaust.

"After hearing my entire life that it can't happen here, it's now quite clear that can happen here and is," Price said.

To combat the rising tide of hate and violence, Price said it was important for people opposed to it to stand together to vocally and visibly speak out against it.

"We have to recognize that we are in this together, and that, for now, there are more of us than them," he said. "Unless people of goodwill stand up and fight back, they are complicit."

Similarly, Litvak encouraged people to support the work of the ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other organizations that combat hate speech, and to do their part to push back against hateful rhetoric and acts.

"The best way to reduce hate in our community is to extend more love and compassion to others and challenge hate and prejudice directly," he said. Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.

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