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How Pittsburgh's Jewish Community Is Coping After Deadly Shooting At Synagogue


We're going to go now to Rabbi Aaron Bisno. He's the senior rabbi at the Rodef Shalom congregation not far from Tree of Life. He was at a funeral for some of the victims earlier today.

Rabbi Bisno, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

AARON BISNO: I appreciate you having me on.

CHANG: I understand the funeral you attended was for the two brothers who were killed on Saturday, Cecil and David Rosenthal. Can you tell me, what was it like to be in that room today?

BISNO: It was a very special privilege to be there to celebrate their lives. This was the largest-capacity crowd we had ever had in that building. Our sanctuary was built in 1907 and seats 1,100, and they were easily 1,400, 1,500...


BISNO: ...People there. It was really a very special privilege, poignant and sad, but a privilege just the same.

CHANG: I know you also had spent some time getting to know one of the other victims, Richard Gottfried. He was a dentist in the community. Would you share a little bit about him with us?

BISNO: Sure. A year and a half ago, Bishop David Zubik, our Catholic bishop in town, and I led our second trip as an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel. And Richard and his wife, Peg, and his sister and brother-in-law joined us on a group of a number of interfaith couples as we traveled through Israel and came to appreciate better Judaism and Christianity's shared traditions and where they diverge. And it was incredibly meaningful for - for Richard, I know...

CHANG: Yeah.

BISNO: ...And for his family.

CHANG: Now, Tree of Life is in the same neighborhood as your congregation. How are your members coping right now?

BISNO: It's a surreal experience for all of us as we begin to absorb what the impact of this will be on our community. Everyone knew someone or had a connection. It's a very special community, Squirrel Hill, multigenerational and overlapping relationships throughout the Jewish community and across religious denominations.

CHANG: And how are you talking with your members about the shooting? I mean, what do you say about something like this?

BISNO: We simply at this point acknowledge just our deep sense of shock and sadness and how we'll support each other through this and how we need each other, will rely on each other and how the strength of our relationships will - will carry us through.

The image I've been coming back to is the way in which Pittsburgh manufactured steel for so much of the last century and how that steel was strengthened and forged in a kiln. And in that same way, as we go through this - this difficult trial, I'm confident that our community will be strengthened thereby as well.

CHANG: As we heard, President Trump is in Pittsburgh today. And some Jewish leaders there asked that he not come now, at least not while the funerals are still underway.

BISNO: Right.

CHANG: Do you agree with them that it's just the wrong time for the president to be visiting?

BISNO: I don't begrudge the president his visit at all. And I've been gratified by the comments he's made and the pronouncements that have come out of the White House in recent days against anti-Semitism.

But I'm troubled by the president's unwillingness or perhaps his inability to actually recognize the power of words and the responsibility he has for the rhetoric that he puts into the public dialogue. And in the absence of his taking responsibility for that, I think he becomes a divisive figure for many. And I worry that his being here is not going to be a source of comfort that he might hope it to otherwise be.

CHANG: What does the community need now, you think, as - as it's trying to heal?

BISNO: I think this community needs time. I think it needs the patience of our - of our country. And at the same time, it needs a sense of urgency, that we're going to actually respond to the reality that we live with a population that's rife with guns and with anger and with alienation and that we're ratcheting up the heat and the vitriol and the defensive posture. And instead, what we really need to do is come together and appreciate the ideals upon which our country was founded, which is an embrace of the refugee and the stranger and those who want to make this...

CHANG: Yeah.

BISNO: ...Land of opportunity their home.

CHANG: Rabbi Aaron Bisno of the Rodef Shalom congregation in Pittsburgh, thank you so much.

BISNO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.