The Los Angeles Jewish community and allies mourned the 11 victims of a mass shooting in Pittsburgh – Saturday, Oct. 27, during three separate services on three floors at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Rose Mallinger, 97, was the eldest victim, though she was not a Holocaust survivor, as many reported. However, Judah Samet, 80, who always sat in front of Mallinger, was a survivor—he was eight years old at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. He arrived four minutes late to the synagogue, escaping certain death once again.
The suspected shooter, white supremacist Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh, was heard yelling “All Jews must die” before being shot and arrested. He was charged with 29 counts, including murder and several hate crime charges. The Anti-Defamation League calls this “the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.”
Hate crimes in Los Angeles went up 10.8%—the fourth consecutive rise that is part of a spike in hate crimes in the past few years, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino released last May. In Los Angeles, the CSUSB study reported 254 hate crimes 2017, with African- Americans, Jews and transgender individuals the most frequently targets. Recently, the FBI arrested three members of the SoCal-based white supremacist extremist group, Rise Above Movement, with the fourth, a wanted fugitive, surrendering Sunday night.
The FBI arrested the RAM members for inciting riots at political rallies across California — as well the riots in Charlottesville, that killed one peaceful demonstrator. If convicted of all charges, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Around the same time the RAM white supremacist was surrendering on Sunday night, hundreds of Jews and their supporters rallied at the Federal Building in Westwood to honor the dead in Pittsburgh. An emotional LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is of Jewish descent, was among the speakers.
“I am a Jew, and I’m an American,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti told hundreds of interfaith mourners during a candlelight vigil outside the Federal Building. “Stop the conspiracies. Stop the violence. Stop the hatred — not in this America.”
“L.A. came together tonight to honor the lives lost at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Yesterday was a day that tested the very idea of who we are as Americans. But it was also a day that calls us to step forward, together, to declare that no one can make us afraid or tear us apart,” Garcetti later declared on Twitter. “Tonight, as we join together in prayer for the Tree of Life victims, we’re reminded of the words of the great Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Kook, who said ‘we conquer senseless hatred with boundless love.’ And that is who we are — as Angelenos, as a community, and as a country.”
The night before, the night after the shootings, LA’s Temple Beth Am held a community service and discussion. More than 70 people gathered to discuss life lessons, hosted by JQ International, an important LGBTQ Jewish organization. In addition to talking about coming out issues, the group addressed their two different realities: joy and celebration on one side and on the other, fear and grieving.
After a moment of silence in honor of the Tree of Life victims, Moderator Rabbi Ilana Grinblat reminded the audience about the recent attacks on transgender rights.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Senior Rabbi of the LGBTQ+ synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim, shared her experience of coming out more than 30 years ago. She emphasized the importance of LGBTQ+ synagogues as a safe space for queer Jews. Their founders urgently searched for places to worship, not giving up their Jewish identity. They believed that there was a place for queer Jews in religion and, not accepted by mainstream congregations, they built their own synagogues.
Bisexual Lia Mandelbaum and Yoni Kollin, who identifies as gay and non-binary, spoke about positive responses to their coming outs. Their families were very supportive and their congregations welcomed them with open arms. Mandelbaum was even invited to speak in her home synagogue on Pride Shabbat directly after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. People were coming to her, asking her questions and even sharing their own struggles with her – for her a powerful sign of acceptance and equality.
Arya Marvazy, JQ International’s managing director, talked about a totally different experience. He grew up in a traditional Jewish-Iranian community and thought it would be impossible ever coming out to his family. He didn’t have any role models in his youth. Encounters with gay men were answered with harsh and hurtful comments by his family. When he finally decided to speak about his sexuality, encouraged by a friend who struggled with the same traditional background, he promised to come out loudly to everyone else. By doing so, he could serve as a role model.
For Nate Looney, a farmer in the fifth generation, this panel was the first time speaking about being trans* in the Jewish community. Nate converted in Reform Judaism but feels more connected to traditional observance. Transgendered people in Orthodox Judaism are facing several challenges in everyday life. Becoming married meant for Nate speaking to different rabbis about genitalia, figuring out which rules of traditional Judaism apply. Even though being trans* and observing on a higher level might be challenging, Nate doesn’t stop asking his fellow congregants: “Why shouldn’t I be here?”
Yoni Kollin concluded the panel discussion with a powerful and moving poem about pride—giving the audience courage to not stop fighting for the simple right to exist. There are spaces for LGBTQ+ people in every branch of Judaism. Queer Jews have to make themselves visible, loudly and proudly. Especially in these troubling times, we are facing right now.
Jan Wilkens is a visiting scholar in Jewish Studies and LGBT history from Berlin, Germany.