Matt Rourke, Associated Press
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018.

PITTSBURGH — On the one-week anniversary of the New Zealand attack at Christchurch Mosque, Jewish members of the Pittsburgh community were at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh during Friday prayer to show their support.

“It’s the first Friday prayer after the attack and we want to be there when the worshippers arrive and make them feel safe and know that we have their backs. This is how the faith communities roll in Pittsburgh,” said Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a board member of the Tree of Life Synagogue before Friday prayer. In October, 11 people were killed at Tree of Life during a mass shooting that occurred during Shabbat morning services. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States in history. In response, Muslim Americans raised more than $200,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign to help families affected by the tragedy.

Now, in response to the massacre in which 51 Muslims were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, members of the Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue are returning the favor and have, to date, raised over $54,000 and hope to reach their goal of $100,000.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is also raising money for victims of the Christchurch attacks.

“We were touched by the worldwide support we received but particularly by the Muslim community in Pittsburgh. It was immediate. They told us they were heartbroken and appalled, offered to stand outside our synagogue so we felt safe and started fundraising for us. So when we heard about New Zealand, we had to be front and center,” Zittrain said.

Building bridges

The recent tragedy in New Zealand happened on the heels of Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar’s comments about Israel, which sparked a national debate resulting in the passage of House Resolution 183 condemning hatred and intolerance of minorities, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim congresswoman, has herself been the target of racism. Earlier this month, an anti-Muslim group WV Act for America put up a display at the West Virginia statehouse, including articles and documents with titles like “Readin’, Writin’, and Jihadin,” “The Islamization of America’s Public Schools” and “The Four Stages of Islamic Conquest.” Perhaps the most jarring part of the display was a poster showing the World Trade Center burning with the text “Never Forget” on the top of the picture and an image of Omar on the bottom with the words “I am proof you have forgotten” – painting Omar as the ‘other,’ anti-American and someone who should not be trusted.

Dean Purcell, New Zealand Herald via Associated Press
Mourners carry the body of Imam Hafiz Musa Patel, a victim of the Friday March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch at the Puhinui Memorial Gardens in Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday, March 21, 2019.

Feeding this narrative, Jeanine Pirro, a popular Fox News host, recently questioned whether the Congresswoman’s religious beliefs were ‘antithetical’ to the Constitution and suggested that Omar’s faith may be the reason for her “anti-Israel sentiment,” perpetuating an age-old stereotype about hostility between Muslim and Jewish communities.

The national debate frames the relationship between American Muslims and American Jews as fractured, but recent events paint a different picture. In the wake of the New Zealand shootings, Jewish leaders and communities across the country have shown their support to the Muslim community. In North Carolina, a group of Jews and Christians gathered in solidarity outside the Islamic Center of Asheville during the weekly prayer last Friday. Ginna Green, Chief Strategy Officer of Bend the Act, a progressive Jewish advocacy group, condemned the attacks, saying “we are not safe unless we’re together.”

In New York City, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum encouraged members of the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah synagogue to “deepen” their engagement with Muslim neighbors and learn more about Islam since Muslims are the “first targets of institutional and individualized hate.” In Austin, Texas Rabbi Neil Blumhofe led the nearly 400 audience members in song to close out the vigil held at St. James Episcopal Church.

According to Muna Hussaini, the president of the board for Muslim Space and an organizer of the Austin vigil, there is a history of support between the two local communities.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
In this Dec. 2, 2018 photo, a menorah is tested outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in preparation for a celebration service at sundown on the first night of Hanukkah, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A $6.3 million fund established in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre will primarily be split among the families of the dead and survivors of the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh made the announcement Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

In response to Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Matt Korn and Josh Frey, two gay Jewish men, founded a group called Muslim Solidarity ATX. In June of that year, when 49 people were killed in a mass shooting by a Muslim man at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, the group made efforts to curb the backlash against Muslims for the attack.

“They had people show up outside mosques in Austin with signs of support and flowers even though the LGBTQ community were the victims. They were instrumental in providing solidarity and making us feel safe, seen and heard.” Hussaini said.

Favorable views

A new study also confirms that American Jews and American Muslims have favorable views of each other.

The survey from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, or ISPU, reveals that American Jews and American Muslims have similar opinions of each other. In fact, they are far more likely to hold favorable than unfavorable views of the other.

To create the report, ISPU interviewed almost 2,400 American residents from different religious backgrounds. The data shows that 45 percent of the Muslims held a favorable view of Jews and 53 percent of Jews held a favorable opinion of Muslims.

" When the attack occurred, the faith leaders were not Googling how to find each other. They have relationships and they have each other's phone numbers and that’s why they could respond so quickly. "
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a board member of the Tree of Life Synagogue

Only 10 percent of Muslims held an unfavorable view of Jews and just 13 percent of Jews held an unfavorable opinion of Muslims. This may have something to do with the fact that the study also found that while roughly half of the general public knows someone who is Muslim, about 3 in 4 Jews know a Muslim.

A 2018 study by Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, or FFEU, echoes the sentiment that gaps between American Muslims and American Jews are smaller than previously thought. The study found that almost three-quarters of Muslims who interact with Jews frequently say that Judaism and Islam have more similarities than differences and more than two-thirds of Jews who interact with Muslims say the same.

Zittrain says Pittsburgh is a national leader when it comes to interfaith communities. They were able to pull together an event with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders the day after the New Zealand attack.

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“When the attack occurred, the faith leaders were not Googling how to find each other. They have relationships and they have each other's phone numbers and that’s why they could respond so quickly.” In the days and weeks ahead, religious communities across the county will focus on healing and building strong relationships that will persist, not only in the bad times, but also in the good.

And according to Hussaini, “the thread of empathy that runs through all of our faiths will be the guiding light” in the process.