At Lancaster synagogue, 'we have a lot of tough stuff to deal with'

Written by Ed Mahon/PA Post | Oct 30, 2018 6:39 AM

Rabbi Jack Paskoff, right, speaks to one of the people who attended a discussion about the impact and roots of anti-Semitism. The talk took place at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim on Monday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Congregants gathered Monday evening to talk about the Pittsburgh shootings and their own experiences with anti-Semitism.

(Lancaster) -- Jack Paskoff grew up on Long Island in New York, and it seemed like most of the people he came across fell into two categories.

There were the grandchildren of Jewish immigrants, like him, and there were the grandchildren of Italian immigrants, who were Catholic. He saw a lot of similarities between both groups' experiences, from the way they talked at the dinner table to the importance of family.

Paskoff trained to become a rabbi, and then in 1993, moved with his family to Lancaster County -- an area with a strong German heritage and a smaller Jewish population.

There was, he said, some culture shock.

Early on, one of the public school districts scheduled a big homecoming event on the same day as Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. The schedule became a point of contention, and there was "an ugly exchange of letters to the editor in the newspaper," Paskoff said.

Paskoff chalked the scheduling conflict up to ignorance -- which he says is more common than anti-Semitism. And he started the practice of, every December, sending an annotated Jewish calendar to school district superintendents.

But there were situations that he did put in the anti-Semitism category. One time, when one of his sons was in fifth-grade, a classmate told him: "I wish Hitler finished what he started."

Paskoff, 56, shared those stories Monday evening to a crowd of more than 50 people gathered at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster.

Originally, the synagogue was scheduled to host a talk about the upcoming election on Monday evening. But synagogue leaders changed plans after Saturday, when a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue and shot multiple police officers.

In Lancaster, synagogue leaders decided to focus on the impact and roots of anti-Semitism.

"We have a lot of tough stuff to deal with tonight," Paskoff, told the crowd early on. "But first and foremost, I want to us to keep our eyes on those who have gone out of their way to express support."



Rabbi Jack Paskoff speaks to a crowd gathered at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim on Monday, Oct. 30, 2018. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Many talked about the importance of that support. There were snacks, there was some laughter -- "I'm going to assume that 98 percent of the people here have seen 'Fiddler on the Roof,'" Paskoff said at one point -- but there was also raw emotion and a range of concerns.

  • One man talked about how he felt angry when he turned on the news Monday morning and was still feeling angry at "the people who are dividing us now, whether they be Republicans or Democrats."
  • One person talked about how "something that's so trite" -- whether or not to post a Jewish solidarity-theme as her Facebook profile picture -- could make her or her children a target someday. "How horrible is it to have that sense of fear around that?" she said.
  • A mother talked about how her daughter has been very proud to be Jewish, and the Pittsburgh shootings left her shocked and scared. The mother hadn't talked to her yet that day, and she was wondering how school went for her.
  • For Paskoff, the Pittsburgh shootings have led him to think about what life is like for other minorities, ones who "don't blend in" as easily as white, non-Orthodox Jews. And he talked about the importance of standing with anyone who is endangered.

Nicole Kaplan, the practice manager for a health center, was one of the congregants in the crowd. She talked about how her daughter -- a recent college graduate, living in Philadelphia and working in New Jersey -- found a swastika drawn on the window dirt of her vehicle last week.

Kaplan's daughter reported the swastika to police. And her daughter was supposed to meet with human resources at her work to see if surveillance footage would show who left the symbol. But then, after Saturday's shootings, she was "too scared. ...She's really afraid of being a target," Kaplan said.

Early on in the talk, Paskoff told the crowd that he wanted to avoid partisan politics. But President Donald Trump -- who said an armed security guard might have stopped the Pittsburgh gunman -- did come up.

It happened near the end of the discussion when Paskoff was talking about security.

"I do believe we need to be vigilant, whether that means locking all the doors except for one and someone standing there letting people in," he said.

A woman in the audience cut in.

"With a gun," she said.

"You know, guns are a different story," Paskoff replied.

He paused. Then he sighed.

"Let me touch on that for a second," Paskoff said. "We tend to both condemn and glorify guns in different ways. One armed security guard would not have stopped what happened Saturday in Pittsburgh. ...You would have had an additional dead person."

There were a lot of questions at the meeting. They didn't reach answers to all of them.

"We will continue this conversation in different ways," Paskoff told the crowd, "because sadly this isn't going to go away."

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