Crown Heights

Pittsburgh rabbis share their anguish at annual Brooklyn gathering

November 6, 2018 By Todd Maisel Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Thousands of rabbis from around the world massed at Lubavitch headquarters on Eastern Parkway. Eagle photos by Bruce Colter

The annual gathering on Sunday morning of more than 5,000 Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic rabbis from more than 100 countries was more somber than usual this year, as participants memorialized the 11 Jewish people shot to death in a Pittsburgh synagogue last week.

The gathering for the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries at Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights was highlighted by a special prayer by the rabbis of Pittsburgh to remember the people slaughtered in the anti-Semitic attack. But even more sobering for many rabbis was the idea of bringing guns into their synagogues to thwart future attacks.

The attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a part of Pittsburgh, is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in America and an event that shook the global Jewish community to its core.

“It was a nightmare of a week,” said Pittsburgh Rabbi Moishe Mayar-Vogel. “We had our last funeral Friday afternoon. It was our oldest individuals and we have one still in the hospital. It was parents burying kids. It was not fun.”

As for arming synagogues, he said he preferred to “stay away from that discussion and instead focus on ‘Whenever there is darkness, there will be an increase in light through spiritualness.’” 

Rabbi Mendy Shapiro of Monroeville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, says he was very close with the Squirrel Hill community and had been in talks with his community about providing armed security for area synagogues, even before the attack. 

“We intend to make sure we have proper security at our synagogue,” Rabbi Shapiro said.

Rabbi Iyen Malkovich of Israel said all Israeli synagogues are armed by necessity because of terrorism.

“It would be much better if every synagogue in the United States had security,” Malkovich said. “It’s horrible that someone came with a gun to a synagogue — a place where Jews come every sabbath to pray in peace, and someone ruined it.”

Rabbi Shlomo Rivkin of Kentucky, said “Everybody in Kentucky has a gun — after all, my Jews elected Trump.”

A police officer watches for trouble at the synagogue.

“My grandfather was the Rabbi in Pittsburgh for 20 years, so I have an emotional connection to it,” Rabbi Rivkin said. “We live in a place where anti-Semitism is muted. However, we live in a world where there’s already armed guards around the world in Australia [and] Europe. The concept is not foreign to Jews right now. The idea to reject it because we don’t like the way it sounds, I don’t think it’s smart either. We need it in France, we need it in Germany, maybe we need it in New York.” 

He added, “In Kentucky, most rabbis carry a gun.”

Military chaplains who are rabbis were on hand for the event.

Heavy police presence was visible at this year’s get-together. Each rabbi was required to wear a special nametag to identify them as belonging at the event.

Rabbi Nissan Dubov of London said nobody uses guns in England, but that it may be time to arm synagogues and increase security. 

“I think you guys in America should do it,” Rabbi Dubov said. “In England we don’t have guns. Look what happened in Pittsburgh. I don’t think rabbis should [carry a gun], but maybe synagogues should have armed guards in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Levi Burkov of New York said security is a question for each synagogue and that he doesn’t like to comment on that individual security. But he added, “I don’t like to comment [on] whether we have armed or not armed security, but our security is well, well under control.” 

Participants will also mark nearly ten years since the murder of Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai, in the 2008 terrorist attacks. The conference is normally a discussion of Jewish values, community and togetherness, but leaders admit security concerns will be a center of attention.